'You can't get real quiet any more," laments Kurt (Will Oldham) in Old Joy. He's talking about finding a peaceful corner in the world - and discovers one deep in the Oregon woods - but the same applies to cinema. It's hard to find a film these days that allows you a little thinking space, that doesn't bellow its purpose in your ear, like Babel or this week's big state-of-America drama, Bobby.
So Old Joy comes as a welcome relief. Kelly Reichardt's film leaves us to winkle out its meanings from the gaps between moments in which little seems to happen. It may be that elusive chimera, a film about nothing, or it may be just what it appears: a plain story about two men who walk into the woods... and then walk out again.
Kurt and Mark (Daniel London) are vaguely bohemian men in their thirties who go way back, or so we assume - we never quite discover what history they share, apart from some friends in common, and fond memories of a defunct record shop. Mark works in a community garden, is settled with a partner, Tanya (Tanya Smith), and is awaiting, with taciturn trepidation, the imminent responsibilities of fatherhood. If we can more or less see the kind of person Mark is (largely from London's troubled, sensitive features), Kurt is more opaque: a smiling, contemplative stoner, with a vague interest in theoretical physics and with something indefinably sorrowful about him.
After a brief but telling glimpse of Mark's life - the merest passive-aggressive near-spat with Tanya - he goes to meet Kurt, who shambles into view, a walking haze of denim and facial hair. As the men drive towards the mountains, their chat is a tentative drift of non-sequiturs. The dialogue's not ominous, not obviously absurd, certainly not Mamet-terse; the vague observations just sort of bump against each other. We sense the pair might as well not be talking at all. Their destination, a remote hot spring, is not easy to find: night draws in, fog descends, the road signs are blank. "We're entering a whole new zone," marvels Mark.
It might sound as though the film is about to turn into a horror story, with something nasty emerging from the woods, or from the men. But Reichardt defuses any such expectations from the off, setting her landscape images to ruminatively bucolic music by indie dependables Yo La Tengo. If we feel apprehension, it's not the sort that we've learned from decades of agoraphobic horror films. What actually sets in is a sense of what the Romantics called the Sublime: getting lost in nature as a spiritual thrill, a surrender of the self. …