A camping trip shared by two longtime friends provides the basis for a beautifully nuanced study in friendship and the irretrievability of the past in "Old Joy." Second feature by director Kelly Reichardt trades the humid Florida swamplands of her impressive 1994 debut, "River of Grass," for the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest, but maintains the earlier film's richly atmospheric feel for regional American landscapes and the characters that populate them. Pic's sparse dialogue, meaningful pauses and meditative pull won't be to everyone's liking, but strong festival buzz (it won a Tiger prize in Rotterdam) and critical hosannas should help garner specialized theatrical release.
When Portland resident Mark (Daniel London) gets a call from his old buddy Kurt (musician Will Oldham) proposing a weekend retreat into the Oregon wilderness, he immediately consents, no matter the thinly veiled disapproval of Mark's pregnant wife (Tanya Smith). An unspecified amount of time has passed since the two men last saw each other: The bedraggled, unemployed Kurt has spent a transformative spell in Ashland, but now faces imminent eviction from his apartment, while Mark has become ever more burdened with domestic responsibilities. Without either of them saying anything to this end, we sense these two friends were once very much alike and now scarcely recognize each other.
Though it sounds on paper like a straight version of "Brokeback Mountain" or perhaps "Sideways" with granola substituted for wine, "Old Joy" is really a film about our inability to stop the hands of time, and about the search for sanctuary in an increasingly chaotic world. As Mark and Kurt venture into the woods, they reminisce about a former roommate who now lives in Big Sur; pass by a juice shop that used to be an independent record store; and more often than not, merely soak up the beauty of the passing landscape, which Reichardt's camera regards as though it were some final, endangered frontier.
The scenes in the woods mix comedy, confession and even -- in one remarkable sequence set at a hot springs -- subtle undertones of dread, as the men reconnect while tacitly acknowledging they will likely never see each other again.
Throughout, Reichardt (who also co-wrote the script with Jonathan Raymond, adapting the latter's equally minimalist short story) makes big demands of her actors, forcing them to find other ways of communicating their characters' personalities than through dialogue. London offers a nicely understated take on a one-time rebel whose stopped fighting the system and become a part of it. But it's Oldham who becomes "Old Joy's" gravitational center, carving out an inimitable portrait of one of society's marginal people -- a man who we realize could well disappear into the ether without anyone realizing.
Photographed by cinematographer Peter Sillen in Super 16mm (transferred to HD video for pic's Sundance premiere), the colors in "Old Joy" are radiant: deep sky blues, fiery reds and sunburst yellows. No less striking is pic's sound design, in which everything from a vacuum cleaner whirring to a cricket chirping is rendered with uncommon crispness and clarity.
Camera (Alpha Cine color, Super 16mm-to-HD video), Peter Sillen; editor, Reichardt; sound, Eric Offin. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Frontier), Jan. 20, 2006. (Also in Rotterdam Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 73 MIN.