Buzz Kill

Director Kelly Reichardt's keeping quiet on the darling of Sundance and Rotterdam

Buzz Kill

How do you talk about a movie in which not much of anything happens?

Very carefully.

In fact, "not much of anything" adds up to a whole hell of a lot. The barebones of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy go as such: Two guys, old friends, go camping in Oregon's Cascade Mountains. They are Mark (played by Daniel London) and Kurt (played by singer-songwriter Will Oldham). Mark's about to become a father for the first time. Kurt's that curiously not-contradictory hyphenate, the aging hippie-hipster-activist-slacker. Over the course of 76 minutes, they get drunk and shoot at beer cans. They eat breakfast. They find a hot springs. They drive. A lot. And then they go home.

Yet, when I send Reichardt (River of Grass) a list of questions via e-mail, she immediately calls me, concerned about their specificity, afraid I'll give something away. At first, I'm taken aback: There are no "gotcha" moments here, no jaw-dropping twists or thundering insights. Just a gentle, haunting film about two friends reconnecting – and disconnecting.

But she's got a point. Old Joy works on such a micro level – in the blink-and-you-miss-it nuances of inflection and deflection – that to say too much is to spoil the experience. Which doesn't exactly make a reporter's job a walk in the park. When I ask Reichardt what she means for the audience to take from the film's merging of the personal and the political, in the way the disappointments of the left dovetail with these friends' somewhat uneasy transition into so-called adulthood, she responds, "I don't have any particular desired effect – whatever it is for you is just right."

Reichardt's close-lippedness makes sense, especially in light of the increasingly loud buzz surrounding Old Joy (which Reichardt co-wrote with Jonathan Raymond, based on his story, itself a collaboration with photographer Justine Kurland). Critics and audiences at Sundance and Rotterdam swooned for the film; there was even a minor uproar over the film's misplacement in Sundance's experimental program: unconventional, yes; challenging, sure; but experimental only in comparison to Sundance's increasingly star-driven ethos.

She's also, interestingly, working against assumptions about one of her leads, Oldham. Although he has worked previously as an actor – most recently in Junebug, and most memorably in John Sayles' Matewan – it's his various musical incarnations (Palace, Bonnie Prince Billy) that have earned him an adoring fan base. Reichardt and Oldham discussed including his music in the film, but they ultimately agreed "that it would be distracting. ... I really just wanted Will to get lost in the Kurt character."

The equally iconic Yo La Tengo provides the score (with guitarist Smokey Hormel playing on some of the tracks), and the resultant sound is, to crib from Reichardt, just right: spacious and contemplative, a spiritually simpatico backdrop to the film's quiet limning of male intimacy, ideological dissatisfaction, and ... well, best to stop there. As with Kurt and Mark, it's the things left unsaid that linger longest. end story

Old Joy

Friday, March 10, 6:30pm, Alamo South Lamar

Thursday, March 16, 2:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

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