The relative anonymity of “Old Joy” in Louisville reflects that of its co-star, Will Oldham. Despite being lauded as one of the best films of 2006 — raking in gushing reviews from The New York Times to TV Guide — and boasting one of our most prominent artists in Oldham, it took a Herculean effort by Wild and Woolly Video and the University of Louisville to get it here. Until a few weeks ago (six months after it opened in the big cities), “Old Joy” was unknown in Louisville outside of a small clique of film fanatics.
Similarly, Oldham, despite being maybe our most internationally recognizable and respected musician since Bill Monroe, can walk down the street of his hometown undisturbed. Here, he’s either taken for granted or totally anonymous. In Chicago, New York or London, he’s known as the thirtysomething maverick songwriter who was covered by Johnny Cash; the actor who broke in with John Sayles; and the guy who (inadvertently?) inspired middle-class indie rockers everywhere to grow farmer beards.
“Old Joy” has aesthetic parallels to Oldham’s oeuvre as well; it’s slow, dark, earthy work that speaks of love and betrayal. And it may well try your patience, but it is worth the effort.
Director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond tell the story of two old pals who go off into the woods to repair their friendship (Reichardt referred to it as a “reverse Cain and Abel”). Mark (Daniel London) is on the cusp of change. Although formerly a free spirit, he now has a pregnant girlfriend and mortgage to worry about. Kurt (Oldham) refuses to settle down. Instead, he rather irresponsibly wanders from place to place looking for inspiration and companionship. They’ve grown apart, and it’s not really until they are deep in the forest — removed from modern pressures and the white noise of adulthood — that they are able to really communicate with each other. Here in their Eden, the film deepens into its somber, almost elegiac tone.
It’s obvious that these two characters are metaphors, but metaphors for what? Reichardt offers little explanation. Perhaps they have a political meaning. Perhaps a religious one. Most likely, though, it’s a more universal lament for the pains of adulthood, even when responsibility doesn’t appear until middle age.
“Old Joy” can seem as meandering as its protagonists; the camera spends so much time on the environment that it can seem like a nature documentary. But Reichardt obviously believes the experience of wordless natural isolation is part of the story. In this way, Reichardt reminds me of two famously off-kilter directors: Yasujiro Ozu (“Floating Weeds”) and Terrence Malick (“Thin Red Line,” “Badlands”). Their work meditates on topics rather than explains them. They want you to feel sorrow or forgiveness instead of thinking about it. Emotions and the intellect move at different speeds, and their films — like the work of Oldham — move at the speed of emotions.
When it works, it’s transcendent. And while “Old Joy” is not quite “Badlands,” it definitely works.