We tend to forget that friendships can wither and die, but here's Old Joy to remind us. It's one of those quiet little films that seem closer to short stories than to novels. In fact, it's based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, which Raymond has adapted with director Kelly Reichardt. As in many short stories, the characters kind of imperceptibly shift from one state of being to another. When the movie opens, they're old friends who haven't seen each other in a while - a pair of men in their 30s, lefty types, one of them now married. And when the movie's over, a mere 76 minutes later, it's pretty clear, in that short-story kind of way, that their friendship is over as well. What happened? To the movie's credit, it's hard to say.
They go on an overnight camping trip. Mark (Daniel London) is the married one, a gentle guy who seems to have left some of his ideals behind so that he might get on with his life. Now, he has a wife, a child on the way, a Volvo and Air America on the radio to remind him from whence he came. Kurt (Will Oldham) is a little more dyed in the wool. Or is he turning into one of society's rejects? Again, it's hard to say. But he still roams the country in the eternal quest for new experiences, new visions. "I'm at a whole new place right now, really," he tells Mark when they meet up. And even though we don't know him very well at that point, we're not sure we believe him. Returning to Portland, Kurt's invited Mark to visit a natural hot spring near Mount Hood.
Reichardt, who has a poetic way with time, allows the drive out to go on and on, sticking us in the back seat so we can watch the landscape roll by. And Yo La Tengo's score, with its sad guitars, takes over, erasing from our minds the strident sounds of the city. Mark and Kurt talk intermittently, and we're left to wonder whether they're so close that they don't have to talk all the time or they're drifting apart while sitting right next to each other. Exchanges fizzle out, thoughts trail off. And Kurt has trouble finding the place. They set up camp in the middle of nowhere, pitch a tent in the dark. And we start to think that trouble's coming, the kind of trouble a Hollywood movie would cook up. But this isn't one of those movies. This is a slice-of-life movie.
Something blurted out, a friendly back rub - Old Joy can get you thinking about Brokeback Mountain at times. But it's closer, in spirit, to Sideways, where two college buddies try to patch up their friendship using wine, women and song. Reichardt has described Mark and Kurt's relationship as "a great metaphor for the self-satisfied ineffectualness of the left," to which I can only say: Whoa. I suppose you can find that in there if you look hard enough. But one of the great strengths of Old Joy is that you can find all sorts of things in there if you look hard enough. It's both laden with meaning and open to interpretation. What I saw was two old friends who, without realizing it's happened, have gone their separate ways. Something tells me the next time Kurt drifts through town, he won't make the call, nor will Mark pick up the phone.