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October 18-24, 2006

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'Old Joy'

Photograph by Jerome Prebois
Campfire guys: Kurt (Daniel London) heads to the woods with Mark (Will Oldham) in Kelly Reichardt's 'Old Joy.'

Trail of Beers

'Old Joy' remakes 'Deliverance' with insights instead of crazed hillbillies

By Richard von Busack

HERESY time. Let's start a school of thought that says Deliverance would have been more interesting if the hillbilly rapists had never arrived, if the men on the camping trip had addressed their inner struggle between being civilized husbands and the longing to roam free. Such a film would be like Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, a slight yet intelligent two-character drama about friends on an uneasy camping trip in the Oregon mountains.

Mark (Will Oldham) arrives to pick up Kurt (Daniel London), parking his Volvo outside Kurt's old wooden house in Portland. The place is being sold out from under him by the landlord. Kurt has shaggy whiskers, a domelike balding head and a frayed Levi jacket, pulling a Flexible Flyer wagon that is full of street-salvaged stuff. In short, he's a hippie who hasn't plotted out his future. We never learn what, if anything, Kurt does for a living; a reference line to Ashland (home of the Shakespeare festival) suggests Kurt might work as a semiemployed actor. Another line implies that Kurt and Mark shared a group household years earlier. Maybe they shared this place, this very house that's going up for sale. Mark appears to be doing better for himself: he has a wife and a baby on the way, and a buzzing cell phone in his pocket. Though he mentions how stretched tight he and his wife are at work, Mark has made as much peace as he can about working for a living.

We watch them as they pull out of Portland mutely; we see the city diminish into the suburbs and then give way to the trees. The night out is a rare one for both of them. The two head out to a hot springs in the woods but get lost, fast. They improvise a camping space and huddle by the fire, with the fine, unshowoffy dog they brought along. They sprawl on an orange couch someone dumped there, smoking weed around the fire and doing a little air-gun target shooting. ("Watch out, Hamms cans.")

But Old Joy isn't about the dangers of the woods or the folly of people going into them. Rather, it's about the wall of unspoken worry around the two aging men, summed up in the Air America broadcasts Mark listens to on his car radio. These two people sense everything slipping out of their lives: great things, like their nation, like their youth, like their ailing friendship—and little things, like the local record store that's going out of business.

Kurt, quiet but deep, says, "It's not like there's a difference between the forest and the city, garbage in the forest, trees in the city." The film contrasts this depth with his stubbornness in not moving along in life. Maybe he is crazy, but he is also intuitive, which makes the bizarre little coda of Kurt wandering by himself on a night-time street all the more touching. Rather than bringing the story to a definite finish, the last shots illustrate the foolish bravery of Kurt's choice to drift. Here, Old Joy displays a deftness that is as good as anything in the best of Japanese cinema: the film is an heir to a cinema that observes all and comments on nothing.

Movie Times Old Joy (Unrated; 76 min.), written by Kelly Reichardt, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, photographed by Peter Sillen and starring Daniel London and Will Oldham, opens Oct. 20 at the Camera 12 in San Jose.

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