‘Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy,’ says a character in Kelly Reichardt’s plangent second feature. The proverb explains the film’s title but also offers clues to its unique, elusive poetry, which captures two men’s uncertain attempt to nurse their frayed, neglected friendship back to health, and intimates their half-embarrassed yearning for their youth, which died of natural causes. Based on a short story by co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, the general outlines of the tale are familiar – two old buddies go away for the weekend – but the steady quietness of Reichardt’s approach lends a tension and wonder to the long shots of winding road, forest wildlife, and pensive faces in repose, as Kurt (indie-folk star Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) head toward the Cascade mountain range in America’s Pacific North-west for a brief retreat. Back in their early twenties, Kurt and Mark were likely two of a neo-hippie kind, but a decade or so later, Kurt, a compact space cadet with a Walt Whitman beard, seems just a few steps away from full-blown transience, while Mark has made an uneasy peace with bourgeois life (his pregnant, disapproving wife hovers in the background throughout, either physically or via cellphone).
Most American reviews of ‘Old Joy’ made comparisons to ‘Sideways’, but there’s no broad comic relief, no potted monologues, no redemptive love interests. The patient pacing and expanding silences belie the movie’s slender 76-minute duration, allowing time to soak up the verdant watercolours of Peter Sillen’s cinematography and the wistful wash of the Yo La Tengo score. Moods and emotions are not declared but inferred, measured in swollen pauses and fumbling overtures. As Gus Van Sant did in ‘Gerry’ – another two-hander road trip that ‘Old Joy’ superficially resembles – Reichardt lets the subtext do the talking. Such watchful reticence takes a bold, confident filmmaker.