If there were a place for men to be boys again, one could hope that it would be in the woods. It should be that easy. One could think back to games played together in the woods as a child, or the feeling of mischief and accomplishment when making their first fire. Regardless, nature sometimes can serve at the least for an escape from what is told to us as, or what we qualify, as the real world. But, sometimes as life goes on and as men grow to be older, even in surroundings we see meant to set us free from ourselves, it is difficult to get away from the weights of our own lives.
In Kelly Reichardt's film, Old Joy we meet Kurt and Mark. Mark (Daniel London) recieves a phone call from Kurt (Will Oldham), asking him if he wants to take an overnight trip into the woods and check out these hot springs. It's on short notice, but after running it by his wife Mark makes the decision to go. He mentions how he could use some time in the woods. After Mark drives down through town to the soundtrack of Air America talk radio and we finally meet Kurt we gather Kurt is single, and perhaps in a less professional place than Mark. They decide on taking Mark's car, and next Mark, Kurt, and Mark's dog Lucy head on out for their overnight road trip.
In the following hour of the film we learn as much about the story by what is not said, as we do by the actual dialogue. We learn about these characters in the way they pack up a sleeping bag, or enter and exit a car. The dialogue is sparse throghout. The director Reichardt gives us as many scenes looking through the windshield of a car out at the forest as he does with us focused on the characters and their conversation. When we are witnessing Mark and Kurt interact, their unspoken reactions to eachothers comments ring as true as anything spoken. Daniel London especially, it seems, is required to reveal a lot with his eyes. And at once you can see his love and his friend Kurt, and the sadness of a friendship that has grown somewhat apart. When Kurt at one point after getting a little high breaks down for a moment, wishing thier friendship was what it's the unspoken reaction in Kurt's facial expression that sticks with us much longer than the words. And when we see Kurt playing with Mark's dog, or the dog following them with a stick to big for her to carry, it brings a smile to our face as it gives the impression of a closeness taht doesn't need dialogue (even if it is only the impression).
As Kurt and Mark walk through the woods, my empathy switched from one to the other numerous times. As a friend said after leaving the theater, I have been both at some point in my life. It's the one trying to settle down into a serious relationship or family life while still feeling the tug of (nearly?) carefree male adolescence. Or, is it the one where that carefree male adolescence was held on to for too long, and as life moves on I feel a little bit left behind.
With the continual shots of nature Reichardt at once creates a feeling of lonliness and hopefullness. And when Mark and Kurt finally make it to the hot springs it's one of the more lovingly shot scenes of friendship that I can remember. Yet again, I can imagine that it depends on where the viewer is, what they will take away from the film. It's not a film with an gratuitous climax or payoff. Instead, it's one that requires a certain patience and submission from the viewer to follow along with the story. And, for me, as I allowed myself to reflect on the story, it's one of the more beautifully told films of the past year.
Old Joy is playing through next Thursday at Key Cinemas.