It occurred to me while watching Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2005) that all of her films to date (last year’s Meek’s Cutoff being the most recent) are minimalist variations on the road movie. With Old Joy, a kind of lyrical hipster bromance, Reichardt explores the homosocial tensions that lie beneath so many road movies in which men attempt to escape feminized civilization by seeking out a wild blue yonder of their own. This yearning for an escape into masculinized nature is pretty much one of the grand narratives of America’s cultural history: we see it in the Hollywood Western and in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and in all of Hemingway and in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and in countless other cultural texts. It’s interesting to see this story told from the vantage point of a female filmmaker (though, all told, I found to be Old Joy the least successful film of hers that I’ve seen; “interesting” is about the highest praise I can lavish on it).
It struck me that the film might make a nice double feature with that more grandly romantic men-in-nature movie Brokeback Mountain (which incidentally came out, so to speak, the same year as Old Joy). Or perhaps it might pair even better with Lynn Shelton’s Humpday (2008), a film that, like Old Joy, seems to be about the difficulties of navigating male-male friendships in the age of so-called “new masculinity.” As enlightened straight men of the twenty-first century become increasingly comfortable expressing emotion and affection—and as taboos against homosexuality continue to erode—the line between platonic male bonding and sexual desire has become confusingly unstable. This is, ultimately, the subject of both Old Joy and Humpday, in which smart, in-touch-with-their-feelings straight guys are faced with crises of masculinity, as if to suggest that once the stigmas surrounding male sensitivity begin to fade, what’s left with which to define oneself as heterosexually male? That both of these films were directed by women—and that both feature female characters who are more than a little anxious about the implications of their husbands’ intimately close friendships with other men—further suggests that women may be equally uncertain as to how to feel about such recent shifts in masculinity. It’s a shame, then, that these ideas aren’t given room to fully flower in Old Joy; while I respect and appreciate Reichardt’s minimalist aesthetic, could she give us a little more to chew on here?