“I forget all this is out here sometimes.”
There are few subjects more compelling to me in art than the simple act of time passing. It’s the principal reason Mad Men, a seven-season epic spanning the entire decade of the 1960s, is my favorite television show of all time – it understands what it feels like to live through an era of time, in both the more tangible senses of history and culture but also the more indescribable ways of personal emotion and nostalgia. As human beings, it’s easy to forget how impermanent our entire existence is; how fluid and dynamic our environment, relationships, and personal circumstances really are. It’s not easy to see in the moment, but our lives are in perpetual motion, changing at all times for better and for worse.
Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy is also a piece of art that intimately understands the ways in which the passage of time weigh down upon us. It’s a film about a friendship, one whose life and passion has long since expired into familiar, yet uncomfortable, silences. The film begins with thirty-something Mark (Daniel London) answering a call from his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham), who is in the area and inquires if he wants to go camping. After a brief, passive-aggressive argument with his pregnant wife, Mark takes off to meet Kurt. Almost immediately we can tell there’s something slightly amiss about their relationship. Both men seem amicable enough together, but it’s clear that the awkwardness of their meeting goes beyond the usual, nervous, catching-up chitchat. They reminisce about their favorite record store (now turned into a smoothie shop), chat about their parents, and discuss various significant events in both their lives. Through these brief conversations, we get a loose, lived-in sense of who both men are – Kurt is still living his twenties (or at least attempting to), while Mark is gradually moving on and settling down with a family.
Although we only get to know them for a little under eighty minutes, fundamentally it’s clear that both Kurt and Mark are the same people as when their friendship burned strongest – but the simple fact of their lives having shifted into different directions since their last rendezvous is enough of a variable to throw their entire comfort with one another into question. Nearly all of this melancholy uncertainty is unspoken, of course, captured entirely through London and Oldham’s excellent, mumblecore-inflected performances, Reichardt’s sparse handheld frames of overcast Oregon skies overlooking vast seas of dark green trees, and a gentle, mournful yet relaxed acoustic score from indie band Yo La Tengo.
Like the great work of art that is, Old Joy strips its narrative to its bare bones, allowing the scenery, body language, and patient road movie pacing to take center stage. The emotions evoked while watching are akin to reminiscing about past friendships and memories on a long drive, aided in no small part by the film’s languid, moving frames of Oregon’s beautiful rural landscape; at times, it feels like the film is daydreaming itself about an emotional history we will never truly know. Ultimately, in spite of all the awkwardness and discomfort of watching Mark and Kurt fail to properly communicate the strange emotions they are feeling, the film is bittersweet, eventually settling into a comfortable rhythm just in time for the two to part ways.
It is stunning how surprisingly poignant of a film Reichardt has crafted from such grounded realism and elliptical performances, yet in spite of all its narrative economy it bears an unmistakably lived-in quality that I frankly don’t see or feel very often in much of what I watch. That lived-in quality is perhaps most felt in the film’s conclusion, which follows Kurt from a distance for a few moments after parting ways with Mark. As he paces around the busy streets of Portland, there’s a quiet yet profound sense of mourning, rooted not in any literal sense of grief but in the defeated understanding of the end of an era.