There's a great story in Old Joy, if only director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt had wanted to actually dig it out, instead of just delicately nosing around it for 76 minutes before fading to black. This is not to say that the film is a failure; it's beautiful and strangely affecting given how little heft there is to it, but it does raise the question: At what point does minimalism begin to seem just plain stubborn?
Reichardt's film has a premise that's about as simple as it gets: A pair of old friends, each sliding inexorably into middle age, take a drive out into the woods to stay overnight at some hot springs. The next day, they drive back. The intervening time is filled with lengthy stretches of quietude: the view out of a windshield as the wipers work, the friends sitting by a fire, wind rustling in the trees. One would imagine that most filmmakers would be tempted to weight down this stray and wandering story with undue import, finding the veiled significance in every glance and half-swallowed word—it's no small pleasure to report that Reichardt does no such thing. She gives her film over completely to its moments of nothing much, following the winding narrative to their logical conclusion and never injecting a note of false drama. Unfortunately, that leaves precious little drama to be found.
The first of the friends we see is Mark (Daniel London), a retiring and watchful stick of a man doing yoga in his backyard. Getting a message from his old buddy Kurt (musician Will Oldham), who sounds both out-of-it and vacant on the machine, Mark decides (against his pregnant wife's passive-aggressive resistance) to accompany him on his trek into the wild. When Kurt shows up, he's practically just as expected (hippie-ish, constantly stoned), and clearly not someone used to keeping up his end of any bargain. Within a short amount of time, Kurt has gotten them irretrievably lost in the woods, necessitating an improvised campsite far from their intended destination, which Kurt claims to have been to before, but which they only find after getting directions in a diner.
When Reichardt isn’t filling the screen with smartly composed vignettes of natural beauty—cinematographer Peter Sillen has an organic feel for the film's setting in damp, Pacific Northwest forests, capturing them with a documentarian's rigor—she's injecting small moments of tension between Kurt and Mark, who have clearly grown apart over the years. Although never openly stated, they seem to both spring from similar hippie roots, full of talk about "the community" and utterly at ease in hiking boots and tents. But whereas Mark has a job, house and family, Kurt's life seems almost a caricature of the Peter Pan counterculturist who never could quite find his niche. Between taking hits of the pot they bought on their way out of town, Kurt talks specious nonsense, occasionally dropping a fragment about a hot spring he went to, or some party with bonfires and dancing—his life seeming like nothing but an endless voyage from one flakey, pseudo-spiritual head-trip to the next. Passive to an extreme, Mark never once complains, even as Kurt needles him (without quite saying anything) about turning square, obviously resentful of his attachments. They both want more than the other can provide, yet the friendship rolls quietly on.
It's easy to lose yourself in Old Joy—the title comes from a line of Kurt's: "Sorrow is just worn-out joy"—what with the lush greenery and pittering water drops, the quiet and burbling intensity of the unexpressed tension flowing between the two friends. But when the end comes, many viewers may find themselves wishing for something more. A single harsh word or direct statement, perhaps, something that wasn't just tossed out into the rainy air and left to hang there, unexplained.