Few American independent features in recent memory have seemed as truly capable of turning something old into something surprisingly new as Old Joy — an achingly beautiful ode to the varieties and vagaries of iPod-era young male disaffection based on a short story by Jon Raymond and transformed into something richly steeped in the increasingly remote cinematic traditions of ’70s New Hollywood by Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker all-too-little heard from since her startlingly downbeat Badlands rethink, River of Grass, played film festivals more than a dozen years ago.
An oft-times emotionally elliptical tale of two increasingly estranged friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), approaching the end of their 20s, Old Joy is, however, far more than yet another return to the once-hallowed terrain of Amer-indies past. It is resolutely modern and of the moment — in everything from its narrative nuances and politically loaded peripheral details (including a startling glimpse of the marquee for a movie house called the Baghdad) to its cognoscenti-inclined casting of Oldham as the philosopher-fool at the (off-)center of its tear-shaped universe. Old Joy finally attains escape velocity from the anomie of the past by deciding to wear its hand-me-down stripes inside out. In the process it rediscovers the sort of between-here-and-there heartbeat once found within Henry Gibson’s archly overblown anthem to Americanarama in Robert Altman’s Nashville: how far we all have come till now, and how far we’ve got to go.
Set mainly among the verdant, mountainous Cascades of rural Oregon and poignantly bookended by brief episodes in the quasi-Buddhist backyard retreats of suburban Portland and the vagrant-haunted halogen corridors of its (relatively small-town) inner-city nights, Old Joy ultimately extends well beyond those parameters even as it dissolves into them. “It’s all just one huge thing now,” Oldham’s Kurt at one point rather blankly declaims. “Trees in the city, garbage in the forest. What’s the big difference?” And though Reichardt’s film scarcely seems to have an answer to that question, her filmmaking paints a wholly deliberate picture of contemporary America in contrasting tones of talk radio babble and freak-flag-flying drum circle excess. Old Joy finally comes to limn a new millennium mural within which the collapse of dissenting voices on both the right and left of the political spectrum is an indistinguishable part of one great, awful, swirling whole.
With betweenness a central, dynamic element of Reichardt’s film, it seems somehow entirely surprising and altogether natural that she proves to be a filmmaker intent on discovering a new frontier by following the bread crumb trails of some joyfully old-fashioned cinematic extremes. No better example of that tendency can be found than in the way that Reichardt counters her own heartfelt if generationally predictable fealty to a ’70s touchstone like Five Easy Pieces (implicit in a roadside diner scene) with a far stranger red wagon reference to an altogether unlikelier era’s angry-funny relic, Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Old Joy’s adenoidally intoned expression of age-old alienation manages to escape the antigravity of tradition. Reichardt’s movie trumps the oppressive politics-present-and-accounted-for exertions of cornball kitsch like World Trade Center with a succession of mumbling inarticulations, inchoate male intimacies, and the barely stressed but overwhelmingly evident assumption that when it comes to rediscovering certain perpetually misplaced American verities, Two-Lane Blacktop may be just another way of saying Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Loading a dog and a doggie tent into the back of a Volvo and running down the road to nowhere (occasionally in reverse) on their way to half-remembered paradises among the mighty pines, Mark and Kurt slowly begin to explore their mutual and individual disappointments with the world, themselves, and each other. Not since the windscreen mindscapes of Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road has the conjunction of motion sickness, modern living, and the struggles of overgrown boys seeking to finally attain the status of men seemed so moving — and so at pains to find a way to get moving at all.
As the strains of Yo La Tengo’s dream-drift soundtrack and cinematographer Peter Sillen’s high-def digi-vistas of roadside splendor increasingly blur together and as Mark and Kurt at last begin to haltingly immerse themselves in the baptismal fluids of Old Joy’s promised land — the Bagby Hot Springs, a remote and rustic respite for body and soul nestled deep in the old-growth woods — Reichardt’s film finally finds a way to cross the myriad bridges briefly glimpsed from Mark’s Volvo windows as Old Joy’s relatively brief but precisely calibrated screen time whizzes by. But if what you find once Old Joy finally reaches its destination seems neither precisely a sense of uplift or letdown, rest assured that’s a carefully patterned part of Reichardt’s picture too — a moment that seems neither an ending or a new beginning but yet another frozen teardrop in a world that’s only just begun to thaw.
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For an interview with Old Joy writer Jon Raymond, go to Pixel Vision at www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.