By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we shamelessly promote and defend some of the “worst” films ever made. This week, we turn to Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 subdued yet delightfully complex buddy film, Old Joy, the perfect selection for a movie night with an old friend you don’t really like anymore.
The first few times I sat down with Old Joy, I came out the other end feeling as though I had just watched yet another Kelly Reichardt film about almost nothing. Not that I don’t love the simplicity of her work, she’s incredible at creating a tangible sense of drama and longing out of such minimal plots, and one would be daft to not recognize her talent. Though it may be her most subtle film, this last go around with Old Joy had an intense effect on me, realizing the depth of story and suffocating discomfort inexplicitly woven through a film that’s seemingly absent of character development, dialogue, or resolution.
The set-up is beautifully simple and undeniably universal. Two friends, whose lives have unintentionally gone in separate directions, half-heartedly attempt to regain a closeness by taking a weekend camping trip together in Oregon. Kurt, played so effortlessly by Will Oldham, is an aging and wandering free spirit. Mike, who — it is implied — was once a similar being to Kurt, has moved away from the hippie-esque lifestyle that once brought the two together. Portrayed by Daniel London, Mike has taken a different path, one that led him towards a wife, a child, a house, all of the things he likely didn’t anticipate possessing. This has changed his perspective so far from that of Kurt’s that the two now seem like oil and water, trying desperately to mix.
As they embark on a road trip to the Cascade Mountains, the men’s anecdotal exchanges and “you should have been there” moments become laborsome and overtly seeded in passive aggression and poorly concealed guilt. At times, Mike and Kurt are submissively competing with one another through the sparse discourse, nonchalantly firing off personal information in some effort to prove who’s happier, more responsible, or more fulfilled by their life choices. Reinhardt injects a handful of metaphors throughout these conversations that illustrate each man’s stance on themselves and each other. Mike references a positive change, “what was a dumping ground is now a community garden,” but is quite certainly speaking about himself, and his transformation from someone like Kurt into what he considers a stable “family man”. Kurt’s line, towards the end of the film, “sorrow is nothing but worn out joy”, seems to imply that he believes his unhappiness is simply a result of losing Mike as a friend, their youth, and the life they used to share.
Reichardt’s meditative style of directing lends itself wonderfully to the quietly heartbreaking nature of the script, which is based off of a short story by author Jon Raymond. The lengthy shots of wandering roads through the Pacific Northwest become entrancing, especially when combined with the marvelously minimal and beautiful original score by Yo La Tengo. It’s not at all difficult to feel the strain and between Mike and Kurt, especially placed against such a placid backdrop. The film supplies the all-too familiar guilt that comes with a necessary, but not purposeful, separation, and it stabs you in the heart with the rusty blade of painful truth. We would generally prefer to suppress such thoughts, but we cannot help but relate to it.
Maybe I’m a shitty person (which is very possible), but I find myself relating much more to Mike’s character. That makes me feel remorseful, and in turn, makes me want to praise this film to no end. I think most people have had a friend that’s become trapped in a stage of their life that has slowly separated them from the people who care. Most of us have probably met said friend for a drink or dinner at some point, and found that we have nothing to talk about, with the exception of rehashing old stories that don’t really mean anything to us anymore. It’s likely we’ve even felt enough self-centered and undue pride when we show some form of guilt-soaked pity for this person, yet we still quietly judge them.
It’s these hidden, tragic, and unspoken aspects of the human condition that Reichardt portrays with such poignancy that it can either devastate you or completely slip by you, like passing a homeless person on the street. Perhaps the most affecting part of this film is asking yourself at the end, “Am I Mike, or am I Kurt?” Without question, we’re all one or the other. (It should be noted, the last time we see Kurt, he passes a homeless man and hands him what is likely the last dime he has.) Still, and unfortunately, I’m certainly a Mike, and I probably need to reach out more to the Kurts in my life. I just don’t really like those guys, and I’m super busy.
5) Jon Raymond’s stories have been the inspiration for both Old Joy, and Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 feature, Wendy and Lucy. He also wrote the screenplay for Meek’s Cutoff, also directed by Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams.
4) Mike’s dog, Lucy, is Kelly Reichardt’s dog, whose name is indeed Lucy. She is also the co-star of Wendy and Lucy.
3) If you didn’t know that Will Oldham is also Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Brothers, and Palace music, you’re fucking up.
2) Daniel London played Stan Potolsky in the TV series, Gotham. (I’m going to get huge nerd points from the boss for that one.)
1) Listen to the left-wing-ist talk radio segments Reichardt places into the beginning and ending of the film, they might explain everything you may be missing about the plot. They weren’t included in Raymond’s story; Kelly put those in there to frame the voyage they make together, and it’s goddamn brilliant.