So many films are adapted from novels that it becomes easy to equate the two, when the fact is the average feature buckles under the weight of a novel’s worth of plot and characters. Kelly Reichardt‘s slight, splendid "Old Joy" is actually based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, but it has a reflective and uniquely cinematic quality that doesn’t seem to arise from any literary tradition at all. The minimal events that move the film from start to finish are surrounded by a wealth of subtext we’re left to sift through, and our understanding of and empathy for the two characters emerges largely from what remains unsaid and what we infer during the contemplative silences inherent to any road trip.
In other words, nothing much happens. That’s not a criticism â€” the film accomplishes more in its subdued 76 minutes than others have with casts of dozens and globe-spanning sets. Mark (Daniel London) lives in Portland with his pregnant girlfriend. He gets a call from Kurt (musician Will Oldham), a friend he hasn’t seen in a while, who invites him to go to the mountains to visit hot springs (Mark ends up having to drive). The two get a little lost and end up camping by the side of the road. The next day, they find the springs. They sit in the water for a while. They go home.
Mark works and listens to talk radio, and isn’t sure what will happen if his wife has to stop working post-baby: they will "do whatever is it people do." Kurt smokes pot constantly, seems to be spending his life drifting from couch to couch, and uses words like "transformative" and "otherworldly" in freely in conversation, a habit that’s at first irritating, and later almost endearing. Mark was clearly hoping for a weekend escape with a still-carefree buddy, but too much time has passed, and the two can’t connect in conversation. In exchanges punctuated by long shots of the road going by that recall "Goodbye, South, Goodbye," each detects criticism, intended or not, in the other, and while Mark retreats to passive-aggression and a sense of superiority, Kurt bleats miserably "I want us to be real friends again â€” there’s something between us, and it won’t go away."
It doesn’t go away, something Kurt, at least, comes to realize, but the revelation that friendship often adds up to nothing more than a dusty collection of shared experiences is hardly the saddest to be tucked away in the momentary peace found out in the quiet green sanctity of the pair’s eventual destination. There, too, is a dirge for liberal idealism, which in the modern America Reichardt captures so sharply has become something to be put away with other childish things. The film doesn’t smile on Kurt’s heedless neo-hippie lifestyle, but in the end he is undeniably the tragic figure, adrift alone, all his friends hurrying home to do whatever is it people do, and to dream of the occasional weekend away.
"Old Joy" opens in New York today.
+ "Old Joy" (Kino)