Kelly Reichardt’s film Old Joy is inducted into the Criterion Collection this month, with the quality you’ve come to expect from the boutique distributor. The 2006 Sundance darling film is presented with a new 2K digital restoration and special features that include interviews with Reichardt, cinematographer Peter Sillen and co-writer Jonathan Raymond. The booklet features an essay by critic Ed Halter and the short story by Raymond upon which Old Joy is based.
The film itself focuses on old friends Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who set out on a short camping trip as they face major life changes. Kurt’s a Pacific Northwest hippie type while Mark has settled down, found a demanding job and a wife, and is expecting his first child. Kurt promises a place where they can really relax and reappraise. “There’s trees in the city and garbage in the forest: what’s the difference anymore,” he asks on their first night, while explaining his general malaise to Mark.
Kurt & Mark are trying to reconnect but find it more difficult than they’d anticipated. Life moves on, and so do our friendships.
Old Joy aims for melancholy, the sole emotion that these characters express. But neither of the two characters are particularly insightful or interesting. Their arcs are straight lines. They’re blank slates upon which the audience can infuse their own sense of aimlessness, I guess. Having had plenty of male friends with whom I’ve traveled — and having taken numerous “last time in awhile” trips prior to the birth of my own first child — I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic to Mark. Whatever, man. Get ready to enjoy your kid. Judging from this sample, it’s not like you have meaningful experiences on your weekends off anyway.
So this did little for me on an emotional or sensual level despite Reichardt’s eye for scenery-out-the-side-window shots of gorgeous rural Oregon as it passes by at 30 miles per hour. Her minimalist take is almost too minimal. Old Joy is a significant moment in Reichardt’s career, which has gone on to flourish, and was a critical darling when it was first released. The new restoration is gorgeous, though, and the soundtrack by Yo La Tengo sounds great.