Friendship and nature are the DNA of Kelly Reichardt’s films. One could reference her most recent film First Cow, in which the relationship between two men and their region’s only cow help them forge a path to financial success during the birth of American capitalism. Or maybe one could look to her anthology film Certain Women, and the final story between Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone that is enigmatic and swoon-inducing in the vast Montana mountains. Then there’s Wendy and Lucy — a film where the friendship between a woman and her dog leads to one of the most sensitive, impactful climaxes that many bigger budgeted films would only dream of having. In all of these, Nature doesn’t just serve as setting. It has its own voice: a voice accentuating mood and atmosphere, while at the same time filling in intimate silences between characters. The film that captures the voice of Nature best out of Reichardt’s filmography is her 2006 sophomore film Old Joy, in which she utilizes the chirping piney woods of the Cascade mountain range in east Portland, Oregon, to explore the organics of friendship and platonic intimacy.
Old Joy tells the story of Mark and Kurt, two old friends who reunite after several years apart for a weekend camping trip to the Bagby Hot Springs. During their trip, they reflect on their shared history and how their lives have changed since they were kids. I can count on one hand the number of friends I would consider having. What friends I do have are lifers; these are people I grew up with, went to school with, had dumb arguments with while stumbling into adulthood. Inevitably, though, many of us friends are eventually separated, off to continue our growth, taking on obligations that would ultimately split our paths as we got older. Linking back up with these individuals after an extended period away from one another is bittersweet; there will always be a shorthand that exists, but after life, 40+ hour work weeks, and distance get in the way, none of you are the people you once were.
This is the situation Mark and Kurt (Daniel London and Will Oldham) find themselves in as they struggle to maintain meaningful connections. They are at different points in their lives — Mark has a home and is an expectant father, while Kurt lives out of his van when he isn’t crashing with someone. Aside from their differing socioeconomic statuses, the two men are also different in personality. Mark is passive-aggressive, long-faced, and, as London puts it in one of the Criterion featurettes, is “not fully inhabiting his own life.” Kurt, on the other hand, is the type to simply say what is on his mind, for better or worse, and says he’s never gotten himself into anything he couldn’t get out of. Yet despite their differences, they are somehow still friends.
The film’s opening scene puts their peculiar relationships not with one another, but with themselves, on full display. Mark’s attempt to meditate is thwarted by the racket of his suburban life as he struggles to find peace; his tension and inability to find inner quiet shows Mark to be someone ruled by the judgment of others. Kurt does not have this problem, at least not in the way Mark does. These are things, though, neither men know about each other prior to their reunion. The experience of re-learning someone is perfectly illustrated through several shots of the men where one of them is in the foreground while the other resides deep in the background of the frame, never far from each other’s thoughts. They realize just how long ago being a teenager was, and how much intimacy they once shared that they try to regain.
Old Joy fills in these literal and thematic gaps between the men with the sights and sounds of Nature. There are several beats where a lesser filmmaker would surrender to melodrama once the pair are deep in their journey, and especially when they realize they are lost in the woods. Kurt’s go-with-the-flow vibe stirs friction with Mark; yet instead of the film bubbling to an argument or incident between the two, it instead lets the environment do the talking. Reichardt, who is as precise an editor as she is director, brings emotional balance by cutting to the glorious greens and browns of the forest, providing ice to the tension. After a bit of consolation, Kurt drops the discussion about the feeling of distance between them, chalking it up to him being “crazy.” Mark doesn’t push, and he sits with the question, letting the sounds of the forest speak. Allowing the wonders of Nature to have that much of the stage keeps the film off the path of cynicism. Reichardt’s empathy fits hand in glove with the outdoors by staying true to the theme of Nature itself being change. Change is something that intimidates Mark, someone who will remember almost two decades later if you stiffed him on rent. As Kurt says, he hangs onto things.
Yo La Tango’s score follows Nature’s lead by providing their own gentle approach to the friends’ estrangement. Reichardt is selective when it comes to the placement of score in her films. In some cases, like Wendy and Lucy, there’s hardly any score at all. In Old Joy, Yo La Tango’s score has a strong country music vibe, perfectly complimenting the aging visuals of the countryside for the American Northwest as Mark and Kurt drive out of the city. The long point-of-view shots out the window make a captivating pair with the warm music, and puts the viewer in the car with the two friends, making one feel like they are also invited to this trip in the forest. The extended shots and the warm music are a captivating pair. In many ways, these stylistic choices help to represent the timeline of their friendship and the process of growing apart and back together. Transitioning from the busy city to decaying rural buildings to the openness of Oregon capture “the end of an era.” What once was their friendship is now subjected to the uncertainty of the future. The length of the shots and the music symbolize Reichardt’s defiance to rapid-paced content. Not only is change natural, but it is also slow, and that slowness can be beautiful.
The climax of the film sees the men arrive at the long-sought-after hot springs. What unfolds is a breathless moment between the two men involving a shoulder rub. The physical touch suddenly evaporates the distance that pitted the friends from one another. It takes a moment, but Mark resigns to the shoulder rub at Kurt’s reassurance. The shoulder rub doesn’t outright allude to romance or sexuality, but instead intimacy and vulnerability, two natural components of any meaningful relationship. It is human nature to want to be close with others, and Mark gives in to this innate desire as illustrated by the stunning image of his hand relaxing from the edge of the tub, drifting in the water. Nature is what brings these men together once again.
Reichardt is masterful at capturing characters in transition. The audience knows Mark and Kurt for 73 minutes, but what happens before or after is anyone’s guess. So enrapturing is the world of the woods and Reichardt’s story that returning to life outside the forest is a disorienting experience for the men. As soon as they separate, Mark subjects himself to the same dull torture of leftist radio, a symbol of his return to modern technology from the warmth of nature The last frame we see of him is in his car outside of his home. He is not seen leaving the car. Kurt wanders the streets for a while before a man on the street asks him for change. Kurt declines, at first, but after consideration, he changes his mind. One can speculate Kurt was inspired by a conversation he had with Mark in the forest about giving back to the community, and then he walks out of the frame, perhaps desiring to give back to the natural world that gave him so much
Reichardt is one of the most essential American filmmakers working today for the way she uses natural landscapes and environment and her ability to use nature as a lens to examine relationships. Chances are most people know a Kurt or a Mark in their lives, someone they were once close to but separated by time and circumstance. To reunite with this person can sometimes mean meeting an entirely different character. But Old Joy is a reminder that it’s okay for change, because change is inevitable; nature changes, too, and has its own order and natural cycles that we may not be able to see. Kurt says it best in a short monologue while sitting at a campfire with Mark, explaining how he understands physics:
“Sometimes things look like they don’t have any order, and then from a different level, you realize it does have order. It’s like climbing a mountain. Look around, you see trees, rocks, and bushes pressing around you, and then you get above the tree-line, you see everything you just went through, and it all comes together. You see that it has a shape after all. Sometimes it takes a long time to get high enough to see it, but it’s there.”
Friendships are similar in that there are many aspects to it; some good and some bad. It’s only after allowing time and distance to a relationship does one realize the shape of it all.