Kelly Reichardt is a master of the quiet moment. All of her movies are quiet and in their silence they reveal many things. Her first picture, Old Joy, is a comedy and as such might involve more dialogue than any of her subsequent outings, that’s not to say that it’s talky. Here we have Mark (Daniel London) leaving his pregnant wife for a day and a half to go to a hidden secret hot springs in the Oregon wilderness with his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham), recently returned to Portland from his latest “transformative” experience somewhere. Kurt is the worst kind of hippy; obnoxious and rude, pseudo-deep with a fortune cookie take on any event or phenomena (he has some unique views on physics), flighty, forgetful, rambling, childlike. “There’s not really that much difference between the forest in the city. You know what I mean?” Kurt asks. Well, of course we don’t because that doesn’t make sense. Mark has moved on from him emotionally, and that’s the crux of the story.
Mark is nobody’s idea of a grown-up, he’s terrified of his upcoming responsibilities as a father and at least hoped that reconnecting with Kurt would be a fruitful bond but its clear to him almost immediately that he doesn’t live in that world anymore. Kurt seems to grasp this too and in a drunken moment late at night he wonders what’s wrong with their friendship. He doesn’t grasp that it’s him. We’ve all had encounters like this; old acquaintances with which we realize there’s just too much distance between, we’ve just grown up in different directions. The two get lost on the trail to the springs and what was supposed to be 36 hours blooms into a weekend. We get the impression that Kurt is lonely and that, as the navigator, they might not have gotten lost honestly. But mainly, Kurt gets high and tells stories of no consequence that he thinks are profound while Mark looks on.
The only one seeming to be satisfied with this trip is Lucy the dog. In the end they get back to the city and part ways, perhaps both hoping it’s awhile till they see each other again. Reichardt is able to wring a lot of humor out of these moments with the help of Oldham and his understated but hilarious performance. Mark seems to be the second-generation model of Kurt. He listens to outrageously liberal radio, he doesn’t seem to own much and you can see on his face that he realizes that it wouldn’t have taken much for Mark to have turned out like Kurt.
I have a hard time discussing Reichardt, who I have the highest admiration for. I have loved all of her movies and all three have plots that could be set up and resolved in the 44 minutes it takes to complete a TV drama, but what she does with the extra time she devotes to the stories is never boring or slow but always correct. That’s the word for Reichardt; correct. I can’t really explain it, she doesn’t use images for narrative or symbolic purposes but they always fit and they’re always right. My failings as a writer prevent me for adequately relating why these movies add up to great emotional experiences, but you’ll just have to trust me that they do. And that Old Joy is a gem.