“You can’t get real quiet anymore,” says Will Oldham early in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), a contemplative two-hander equally concerned with male bonding and the apocalyptic buzzing of Dubya’s America. Oldham plays Kurt, an aging burnout who calls on old friend Mark (Daniel London) to spend a weekend sojourn to an off-the-grid hot spring. We’re introduced to Mark as he meditates in his yard, searching for inner quiet away from grinding lawn mowers and traffic din. Similarly eager to escape imminent fatherhood, he takes his dog and Kurt into the mountains.
Mark updates his itinerant friend on the closure of old haunts, and Kurt earnestly expounds his theory of the universe, but the two spend most of their time in mutually confused silence. Their shared quiet is tucked into a deep sonic space teeming with life. Sound is as crucial to the film as the naturalistic dialogue or Reichardt’s instinctive compositions. The two abandon the noise of civilization in favor of an environment no less busy with sound, but palliative rather than enervating.
They also escape a culture in which their confusion barely matters and which estranges them from each other’s bodies. Much to their credit, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond acknowledge Mark’s pregnant wife and the position he puts her in with his expedition. According to Mark she’s permitted to kibosh the whole thing, but they both know he’s going regardless and what he really wants is her sincere blessing. She can’t escape the encroachment of pregnancy, but he corners her into accepting his luxury of detachment. Still, Reichardt and co. take both men’s fears seriously and explore them sympathetically. They avoid speechifying their malaise, but their shared sense of loss and tentative renewal echoes throughout the film.