Old Joy
R0 - Australia - Accent
Review written by and copyright: Nell Williams (18th April 2008).
The Film

"Old Joy" did the festival circuit and received good reviews. That it was elected for the Sundance Film Festival and won the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival does not necessarily surprise me. I can understand why it did well. Understated? Check. Indie music scenester in lead role? Check. Desolate scenery? You got it. “One of the ten best films of the year” (Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly)? Well, no. "Old Joy" is a true festival film. But maybe that’s the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not offensive or grating or badly made. It’s just unendingly tedious. Nothing happens whatsoever. No, I mean it. Really. Here’s the narrative journey: Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) are old friends, who have fallen somewhat out of touch. One day, Mark gets a call from Kurt suggesting a weekend camping drive to the woods in outer Oregon to find some hot springs he visited a few years back. So they pack up the car and go. They have a soak. They smoke some weed. There’s some talking at some stage (although I may have imagined that). Then they come back. Ta-Dah.

But narrative journey isn’t everything. What about these characters? What do they learn? What’s the conflict and resolution? What’s the point of this jaunt off to bathe naked in nature? Again, the short answer is: nothing. Even under the influence of drugs, Kurt and Mark have no great insights for us or for each other. In fact, most of the film takes place in silence, or with a soundtrack of talk back radio focusing on the issues facing the Democrats during the Bush administration. This was apparently a terribly important artistic decision in terms of the context of the film, but I had to think long and hard about what kind of connection I was supposed to make between the audio score of Joe Liberal America calling in about the state of the US economy and the two silent weirdos in the car listening to it. The best I could come up with was that it maybe had something to do connecting their personal tensions with the wider context of a recent time of tension and uncertainty for the liberal US. This would have been interesting if it had come off, but it did not. There was a hopeful fleeting glimmer of a promise of some sort of honest dialogue between Kurt and Mark after Kurt (the unreliable, unkempt hippy) gets the pair lost and Mark (the job holding, community activist father-to-be) takes a well timed phone call from his partner and takes the opportunity to vent his frustration. But his call is out of shot and instead of watching how this tension develops between and affects the old friends, we are treated to 3 minutes of watching Kurt roll a joint in the car while bemusedly looking at his friend and waiting for him to get back in. Which he does. Then they drive off. Without discussion or nary a glance at subtext.

This kind of dissolution of opportunity to give us an insight into their friendship is absolutely typical of the film as a whole. Director, Kelly Reichardt, shies away from every single moment of tension, choosing instead to let scenes dissolve into unending silences or cutting to shots of the (rather unimpressive) Oregon countryside. Maybe this is a fault of the writing, which is minimalist (fine with me) and determinedly weird (not so fine). Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, and written for the screen by him and Reichardt both, the spare style and unspoken “between the lines” feel of what could have been there simply did not translate to screen. Perhaps the subtlety and nuance of the story should have been left to the page.

There is a star of the show though, and that’s the hot springs themselves. Who knows how they found such an amazing location- it’s a man made shed with two deep wooden baths, built up around the hot springs, deep in the woods and quite surreal. Maybe it was the soporific effects of everything "Old Joy" had thrown at me already, but it was very relaxing and quite lovely to watch they guys enjoy their soak. Again though, I thought that this scene would have to be the point of revelation for the film. Of anything time in the story arc, this one has to be the kicker: They’re alone, in the middle of the woods, in an amazing location. Let’s have our guys enjoy a smoke and some beers and give Kurt and Mark the opportunity to do or say something, anything, meaningful. Let’s see a revelation, either to us or to each other of something that we or they (or, let’s live dangerously, all of us) did not know before.

Or not.

Maybe Kurt should just talk long-windedly about his dream about the Indian woman at the notebook store who, in his dream, held him tight and said “It’s OK. It’s OK. Sorrow is just worn out joy”. This is apparently all we need in order to work out what the film (and its title) is about.

"Old Joy" is shot beautifully and lovingly and the musical score enhances the slow paced, understated style. At 70 minutes long, it’s not a hard watch by any means but the tedium of the direction and characters overrode any kind of more meditative meaning for me. Missable.


Presented in a widescreen ratio of 1.78:1 this anamorphic transfer does a fairly good job of presenting the film. Shot on super 16mm film and blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition this transfer is solid in terms of color. The lush green surroundings are beautifully captured in this film, blacks are good but not as deep and bold as they could have been, there was some noise. Sharpness though for the most part is fairly decent although a few shots appear a bit soft.


A single English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is all on offer in the sound department, this is a substantially wasted opportunity considering the film has sparse dialogue at times the sound mix could have been used to immerse the viewer in the location. Subtle ambient sounds that transport viewers to the hot springs, but instead we have an incredibly minimalist stereo track that feels flat and uninteresting.
No optional subtitles are included on this disc.


Accent has released this film without any extras, which is a shame considering the US Region 1 release has a commentary track.


The Film: C- Video: B Audio: C Extras: F Overall: D+


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