Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/11/08 w/ Additional Edits.
One of American independent cinema's emerging female writer-directors, Kelly Reichardt is known for creating films set in the rural American landscape as she explored alienation in the U.S. 1994's River of Grass was a Sundance hit as well as nabbing three Independent Spirit Award nominations. 1999's short film Ode based on Herman Raucher's novel Ode to Billie Joe offered similar acclaim. After making two short films in 2001 and 2004, Reichardt returned with her third feature that would give her bigger acclaim and attention about two old friends reuniting on a weekend for a camping trip. The film is named after Jonathan Raymond's short story that Reichardt based on entitled Old Joy.
Directed and edited by Kelly Reichardt with a script written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, Old Joy tells the story of two old friends reuniting for a weekend as they go camping in the mountains around Oregon. During this period, the two men deal with the changes they're facing once the weekend is over as one deals with imminent fatherhood while the other is trying to have one last adventure. An exploration of loss and alienation in the George W. Bush era, Reichardt's film is an eerie tale that is intimate in its storytelling. Starring musician Will Oldham and Daniel London. Old Joy is a poignant, intimate, and somber film from Kelly Reichardt.
Mark (Daniel London) is at home with his pregnant wife (Tanya Smith) as he gets a call from his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham). Kurt suggests that he and Mark should go camping for the weekend as Mark decides to go since he and Kurt hadn't seen each other in a long time. Taking his dog Lucy, Mark meets up with Kurt as the two drive to the Cascade Mountain range where they talk about old places they used to hang out and old friends they don't see very much. After getting some weed for the trip, the two continue to drive as they reach the Cascade Mountains. After trying to find the road to the Bagby Hot Springs near the river, they stop at a campsite where Kurt talks about his own adventures and ambitions. Mark reveals his own anxieties over his upcoming role in being a father. After finding the Bagby Hot Springs as the two and Lucy walk through the woods, Kurt tells a story as both he and Mark agree that the trip was a good escape to their own usual surroundings while pondering what's going to happen next.
The film is essentially about two old friends going on a camping trip for the weekend and trying to reconnect with one another as they face changing times and such where the trip is really an escape for them. That's practically it since director and co-screenwriter Kelly Reichardt decided to go more for minimalist storytelling instead of going for a traditional plot. Yet, the script that features not a lot of dialogue or plot-points but rather something that follows two guys going on a trip for escape. The film is driven more by improvisation to give it a more natural, realistic approach.
Reichardt's direction is definitely intimate in both its 73-minute running time and story. With numerous images of the Cascade Mountain range along with the forest, trees, and other nature images, the film is meant to reveal the natural world that the main characters are escaping to in comparison to the world and cities that are noisy and dirty. Reichardt isn't trying to make a political statement though the voices of people on Air America Radio is heard frequently to reveal the sense of alienation that is going on at the time during the country. Yet, sense of escape from the political and social climate of their surroundings bring a unique story of these two men trying to reconnect. While Reichardt also suggests some homoeroticism in Kurt's part towards Mark, it's only to reveal the intensity of this friendship as neither man hadn't seen each other in some time.
Reichardt's direction and her editing definitely works to create something that is intimate with lots of improvisation and rambling dialogue as she lets the audience see these two guys hang out and walk through the woods. On the editing, Reichardt uses jump-cuts and other transition styles to get the story flowing. What is more striking in both her editing and direction is knowing when not to cut. There's long takes in order for Reichardt to explore the conversation between Mark and Kurt as it maintains this sense of improvisational, naturalistic feel for the film. While audiences might feel that Reichardt's approach is pretentious, it's clear that Kelly Reichardt is an unlikely voice for American independent cinema by doing things unconventionally in order to tell a story.
Cinematographer Peter Sillen does brilliant work with the film's camera in creating a colorful yet natural look to many of the film's exterior forest scenes with wonderful looks of leaves and rivers. Sillen's photography is exquisite with those scenes without a lot of artificial lighting styles or flashy as he goes for realism and beauty. Sound designer Daniel Perlin along with editor Eric Offin and recordist Gabriel Fleming do great work in the film's sound to capture the atmosphere of nature as well as the noisiness of the city and roads. The music by indie band Yo La Tengo is wonderfully melodic and atmospheric with just its arpeggio-laden guitar and somber tone. The cast is filled with mostly friends and such with Tanya Smith in a very good small role as Mark's pregnant wife. Yet, it's the performances of Will Oldham and Daniel London that really shines. Oldham as the more ragged, talkative Kurt with his rambling dialogue and London as the quieter yet more serious Mark. Oldham and London have great chemistry as they bring a natural style of acting for the film.
Old Joy is truly a remarkable gem from Kelly Reichardt featuring great performances from Will Oldham and Daniel London along with Yo La Tengo's rich score. Fans of minimalist, American independent cinema will no doubt enjoy this film for its wandering style and looseness. Audiences of more mainstream films might be befuddled by its lack of plot and improvisational approach though its themes will prove to be relevant at the time when American aren't feeling great about themselves. In the end, Old Joy is a rich, intimate film from Kelly Reichardt that proves that less ideas can bring more out of a really good film.
Kelly Reichardt Films: River of Grass - Wendy and Lucy - Meek's Cutoff - Night Moves (2013 film) - Certain Women - First Cow - Showing Up - The Auteurs #72: Kelly Reichardt
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