Dir. Kelly Reichardt
(2006, Not Rated, 73 min)

Old Joy is a film with more negative space than space, and at only 73 minutes every scene has a greater burden to convey its core relationship and themes, but at this I’m not sure it quite succeeds. I streamed it on Netflix for three reasons: (1) it was categorized by the site as a “gay drama,” and I’ve undertaken to watch and review gay-themed films during Pride Month; (2) it’s directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose subsequent film Wendy and Lucy I greatly admired; and (3) it’s length – when presented with hundreds of instantly streaming viewing options, sometimes the shortest commitment is the easiest one.

But I wish I had seen the film without seeing it classified as gay-themed. It might have played much better that way, because its homosexual content is mostly subtextual, and so understated it’s barely conveyed at all. Is that the crux of this film or meant to be left ambiguous? Or both? Reichardt is not a filmmaker of broad strokes, as demonstrated in Wendy, which was similarly pithy and subtle, but here she is almost absurdly withholding of dramatic urgency. Landscapes roll by through car windows. Pregnant pauses go unbirthed. A guitar score by Yo La Tengo has a lulling quality.

For a while I quite liked its pacific pace, with an uneasiness created by images of desolate woods, overcast skies, and upward shots of the steel frameworks of bridges. We get a sense of traveling farther away from civilization and deeper into the characters’ inner lives. Daniel London plays Mark, who is married and soon to have a child, but the only scene he shares with his wife is tense; we’re not sure if this is a minor lovers’ quarrel or evidence of an unhappy marriage. Kurt (Will Oldham) calls to invite him camping. They’re old friends, though it seems they’re no longer as close as they once were. When they reunite they’re cordial, relaxed, but with a hint of discomfort. “I miss you,” Kurt finally tells Mark after maybe a few beers too many.

But the tension doesn’t really pay off. Reichardt does a good job of establishing it, but it simply hangs there, and what began as contemplative eventually becomes a bit slack. There are too many empty spaces, too much silence, too little dramatic thrust, so that when there is a development it’s so sudden that if I hadn’t been expecting something I would have wondered where it came from. I wondered it anyway. The film is driven by subtext, but it doesn’t give us enough substance to hold on to. When it was over it seemed to evaporate from my consciousness.