Old Joy

Collected Works: Film


Old Joy

directed by Kelly Reichardt
Feature film

View a still from the film

Bagby Hot Springs, the Cascade mountain range. Birds chirp, running water trickles. A slug slowly makes its way across a patch of moss. Two men lie back, half-submerged, in hope that the warmth will wash their worries away. One tells a meandering anecdote about a narrowly avoided bicycle accident and a kindly cashier. The other smiles faintly, but offers no response. The more talkative figure kneads his friend’s bare shoulders, calming his objections, encouraging him to ‘settle in’, to allow himself to relax.

Mark and Kurt used to be close, but their lifestyles have long since diverged. The former is now married, with a stable career, a house, and a child on the way. The latter has changed little over the years. He continues to attend ‘transformative’ retreats, he still smokes weed, and he refuses to join the rat race. After securing permission from Mark’s reluctant wife, the pair embark on a short camping trip. The outing comes to call into question not only their dubious navigational skills, but also their frayed friendship.

In an early scene, a progressive talk show plays on a car radio. Callers complain of helplessness; Oregon is a blue state stuck with the Bush administration, its voters left frustrated by the two-party system. For Mark, the woodland sojourn provides escape, however temporary, from the streets of Portland and this political patter. The pressures of partner, property, and impending parenthood may remain, but are held momentarily at bay. Instead, the sights, sensations, and stillness of the forest occupy the foreground.

Yet both friends are acutely aware of the weekend’s impermanence. Kurt wishes to recapture a more carefree past, but the setup is contrived, the conversation forced, the location romanticised. While Kurt celebrates the power of unruffled nature, the camera picks up discarded litter. His relationship with Mark has similarly degraded. The contact that they share in the springs only emphasises their emotional distance. Such tension, whether felt between drifting friends or factions of society, cannot be massaged away so easily.

Words by John Wadsworth

More to discover

View the trailer for Old Joy here, James Ponsoldt has interviewed the director, Kelly Reichardt, for Filmmaker Magazine, as has Gus Van Sant for BOMB Magazine. Edward Cripps has written an introduction to her films for Little White Lies.

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