'Joy': Quietly, Painfully Real

Friday, October 20, 2006

In "Old Joy," not much happens on the surface. But if you look far beneath, you realize: Not much happens. Two men in their early 30s, once close (the back story is ambiguous), take a few days off to go camping in the Oregon mountains. (See Film Notes on Page 39.) One, Mark (Daniel London), is settled into life, though he doesn't appear happy about it; his wife is pregnant, and their relationship, etched in miniature, appears slightly thorny. The other guy, bald, bearded neo-hippie Kurt (Will Oldham), is still at loose ends: He hasn't settled down; he's full of "theories" but short on capabilities. You know what's going to happen: Kurt gets them lost quickly enough, and they end up camping not by a beautiful river as promised, but in a garbage dump. It works out that they have something -- unknown, unstated, unremembered -- in the past, which has now gone away. It was old joy of some sort. Do they want it back? Or are they settled in the now?

The director, Kelly Reichardt, has an exceptional feel for nuances of reality; the movie has a placid sense of realism to it, as each fellow gropes awkwardly, then backs away from whatever happened long ago. Underneath, of course, there's classic literary structure: Two men, like Huck and Jim, flee civilization for the wilderness for purification, for renewal. Maybe they were once lovers, or maybe one once passingly wanted the other. Whatever, they can't figure it out; they go on, life goes on.

They smoke grass, they drink beer, they buy breakfast in a country diner. They exchange banalities and pauses. They confront each other, themselves, nature and life. They make no decisions or changes. It feels so real it hurts, and it's the perfect antidote to all those movies where all sorts of stuff blows up.

-- Stephen Hunter

Old Joy Unrated, 76 minutes Contains nothing objectionable. At AFI Silver Theatre.

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