Old Joy (15)

Dude, where's my tent?
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The Independent Culture

'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. This is a Boys' Own adventure movie that reclaims the backwoods and makes us appreciate the trees again.

When the film arrives at the hot spring, Reichardt and director of photography Peter Sillen capture the calm by concentrating on sounds of water and birdsong, images of cascades on wood, Mark's dog nosing through the undergrowth, a fat black slug on moss. The two men bathe naked in hollowed-out logs, Kurt smokes a pipe and unspools a rambling narrative about his dreams: "I see all kinds of shit out there, man; most people don't see it." It's up to us to judge whether Kurt - who sees the universe as shaped like a falling tear - is a natural mystic, a woodland seer in the tradition of Thoreau, or just a sweet-natured doper who's lost his way.

Nor do we really grasp his relationship with Mark, though we sense that he's obscurely in love with him. At the spring, he surprises Mark with a shoulder massage: we see Mark's face relaxing into pleasure, then his hand slipping into the water. It's a very homoerotic moment, and when the duo walk back to their car, you wonder whether Reichardt has discreetly elided some sort of Brokeback Mountain moment. (Make of it what you will, but there's an executive-producer credit for Todd Haynes, guru of US gay indie cinema.)

Daniel London's gently flustered pensiveness may provide a solid basenote, but Old Joy's centre of fascination is the unquantifiable Kurt, thanks to the abstracted, rather feminine presence of Will Oldham's shaggy-bearded anchorite. You might know Oldham as the hyper-laconic singer-songwriter who usually trades as Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Old Joy is the cinematic equivalent of one of his records; oblique, undemonstrative, somehow memorable for being barely there.

There's a political dimension to Old Joy: it's about a confused, somewhat aimless brand of neo-hippy maleness. In his car, Mark listens to phone-in chat on liberal station Air America - the talk is informed, reasonable, somewhat pedantic, as if there's nothing for thinking people to do in Bush's America but pick politely over lost battles. But if opportunities have been lost, some kind of low-level euphoria can still be found, if only for a moment. Right up to its subtly enigmatic coda, Old Joy is a small miracle. Like a Raymond Carver story, it seems nothing much at first sight, but its crystallised moment reveals further dimensions the more you muse on it. As Kurt says about the hot spring, "It has this other-worldly peacefulness about it - you can really think."