Nothing really happens in “Old Joy,” but that’s only a liability if you go into it expecting something to happen. On its own terms, as a contemplative tone poem about thirtysomething anxiety, it’s lovely and poignant.
It’s also gorgeous to look at, having been filmed in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains (with a few scenes here in Portland, too), the state’s trademark rainy skies matching the beautiful melancholy of the characters. In theory this could have been made anywhere, but it feels very Oregon-y to me.
Mark (Daniel London) is a 30-ish husband and soon-to-be father, a rather typical post-hipster Portland type, who is visited suddenly by an old pal named Kurt (Will Oldham). Kurt is the bearded hippie slacker type, unencumbered by employment or ambition, fond of marijuana and the great outdoors. Facing mild disapproval from Mark’s wife (Tanya Smith), the two head to the mountains for an overnight camping trip.
The film’s quiet setup allows for three possible outcomes: The guys will be menaced and/or murdered, the guys will get all brokeback on each other, or the guys will talk about their lives and enjoy a lot of reflective silence. As mentioned earlier, you do yourself a disservice if you expect something huge to happen. What transpires between these two friends, in a scenario written by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, and directed by Reichardt, is more subtle than that. Kurt realizes that he and Mark are different now, yes, but the men realize things about themselves as individuals, too.
Reviews seldom point out a film’s sound design, but it’s worth noting in this case. Every element of it sounds natural and clear, which is especially noteworthy considering nearly all of the film takes place outdoors, where sound recording is tricky and temperamental and often re-dubbed in post-production anyway. Most of “Old Joy” sounds natural, recorded on the spot, full of vibrancy and life.
In the end, maybe this falls under the category of movies you “admire” more than you “enjoy.” But I honestly enjoyed it, too, letting the calmness and beauty wash over me as the two very well-acted central characters share their quiet journey together.
B (1 hr., 16 min.; )