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Disillusioned idealists in smartly crafted indie

Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” now at the Film Forum, imagines the evanescent reunion of two white male friends across a weekend camping trip. Hewn from the all-American archetype of “lighting out for the territory,” Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond stage a masculine flight from adult obligation as a melancholy slacker odyssey, a final, futile romp in the wild before the chains of paternity snap shut.

Mark (Daniel London) is introduced in meditation, seated barefoot in the yard of his Portland home. Twice, he strikes an iron gong placed on the lawn before him — a ceremonious beginning, welding us to his perspective. His pregnant partner Tania (Tanya Smith), by contrast, enters to the sharp whine of a blender, mixing herself a supplement. Their décor suggests that willowy, porcelain-boned Mark might be but the centerpiece of Tania’s design for living. The vintage furnishings are exactingly chosen, the walls and upholstery the same lentil hue as her nutri-shake.

A surprise call from Mark’s old bud Kurt (Will Oldham) proposing a ride to Bagby Hot Springs, a redoubt in the apron of Mount Hood, cues Mark and Tania’s passive-aggressive fireworks. Though currently indisposed for strenuous hiking, she’s still invited, pro forma, to come along. And she does—in the guise of their pooch Lucy. Timeless symbol of fidelity, Lucy repeatedly recalls Mark to his family while cavorting with Kurt, and during their skittish night in the woods, doubled up in a small nylon tent, the dog is explicitly invoked as a female surrogate mediating the men’s nearness.

Mark rolls up at a gingerbread hovel and cools his heels until Kurt appears, looking like Thor Heyerdahl just off the Kon-Tiki—an angelic drifter in unruly blond beard and denim rags, towing a kids’ wagon piled with junk. Their meeting is gladsome, and awkward. Kurt’s first words for his friend are a remembered dream—he envisioned Mark inside a hospital, and though he didn’t grasp its meaning, “you were the best thing about it.” They stop at a powder-blue shack with jaunty red doors, where Portland film luminary Matt McCormick cameos as a pot dealer.

The pair hits the road, and a highway sign for St. Helens is one of the few obvious reminders that the Cascade Range is volcanic terrain. Its eruptions neatly lend themselves to the film’s counter-historical consciousn­ess—Mount St. Helens exploded in 1980 as if to protest Reagan’s ruinous triumph, and barfed ash again in October 2004, sick at the thought of Shrub’s second term. Passages of rolling landscape as the guys approach the mountains, scored to Yo La Tengo’s plaintive guitar, are the film’s happiest. Peter Sillen’s Super-16mm shooting breaks the naturalism at moments with polychrome sun flares streaked across the frame, or molten conifers mirrored in the windshield.

They’re barely outside Portland before Kurt unpacks the ganja and starts toking—so much for sharing the driving. Were he less stoned the conversation might be no less fumbling, however. Thoughts arise and trail off vaporously; when Mark shares news of his elderly father’s recent health scare, Kurt replies with something about Eskimos. By the fourth or fifth bowl, Kurt’s navigational faculty blurs and they end up lost, sullenly pitching camp in a garbage-strewn cul-de-sac. Over a beggarly campfire, Kurt waffles on about string theory and the shape of the universe. Reichardt inserts a close-up of Mark listening with undisguised contempt—a jarring instance of the filmmakers overplaying their hand.

After a prickly, artery-clogging diner breakfast the next morning, they spot the ill-blazoned turnoff for Bagby. From the moment they park at the trailhead and set out through the old-growth forest, with Lucy prancing alongside, Kurt regains his directional sense and confidently conducts them through a realm of humbling beauty. Here, all is plush understory, trillium and sword fern, towering cedar and hemlock, cool dampness—and quiet. A high-angle view of the pair beside a broad purling stream, as Kurt tosses Lucy a stick, could be the gaze of a spotted owl.

It takes 48 minutes, but our dysfunctional Lewis & Clark finally do sight water, or more precisely a stark timber cabin enclosing the steaming founts spilling from the volcanic earth. As soon as the guys approach the spa, their movements fall into an instinctive alignment. Their strides sync up, they unshoulder their bags in tandem. With few words exchanged they fill the staved wooden tubs and, as they fetch well water to cool their bath, Sillen’s telephoto lens flattens them together, visually stacking their bodies. They empty the buckets with a single rhyming gesture.

Then there’s nothing but to strip down and soak. At this point Reichardt brings off a second climax—softly, like a mist smothering the previous night’s scalding campfire. What transpires between the men in the baths is left purposefully ambiguous. The temptation to peg it in the “Brokeback” column should be resisted; something more elusive, more ephemeral, occurs. Consistent with Mark’s opening prayer, their communion in nature may bespeak a Zen acceptance of loss—of the friends’ bygone intimacy and carefree boyhood, but also of the subculture in which they met, of the solidarity they found there, and of an endangered species of hope.

Early on, over the main titles, Air America broadcasts ground us in the social present tense and embellish a mood of casual pessimism. Near the end, after Mark and Kurt part for what each suspects will be the last time, another radio clip chases Mark home. A nameless caller intones a litany about housing, energy, and healthcare costs. Mark slows to a stop before his porch, and with the same economy evident throughout, Reichardt imparts how youthful idealism is trammeled by the pressures of daily survival in the Republican homeland—every man for himself and the market against all. The alternative? If Kurt’s drifting once aimed at utopian transcendence, he now seems closer to the edge of vagrancy.

Yet “Old Joy” feels rather enamored of its own disillusionment, this substitution of today’s radical closure for yesterday’s radical hopes perhaps too tidy. Reichardt has spoken of building space into the film for viewers to inhabit and make their own, but the dominant impression is of overmastering caution. Scenes you expect to boil over remain tactfully circumscribed, and prudery haunts the ellipses of the spa sequence. One wishes the filmmakers could’ve surrendered to improvisational discovery a bit more, pushed a bit further down the road of excess. Never know what you might stumble upon.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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