By Adam Nayman
Wendy and Lucy
Dir Kelly Reichardt, US, Oscilloscope Laboratories
In Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2005) a character played by the singer-songwriter Will Oldham sits in front of a campfire in the wilds of Oregon and expounds on his ideas about the shape of the universe. Perhaps for the sake of continuity, her follow-up, Wendy and Lucy, also features Oldham speaking in front of a campfire somewhere in Cascadia, but in lieu of some humble night-school string theory, his character—the rowdiest member of a hippie cabal making merry in the woods—tells a rambling, increasingly unsettling story about his misadventures as a forklift operator. The story quiets the rest of the circle, providing a cue for the spooked newcomer in their midst to take her leave, with her dog in tow.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is very much the departing kind: as the film opens, she’s en route to Alaska to work in a cannery (“they need people there,” insists one of the campfire revelers), and her notebook contains the names of the various small towns she’s passed through along the way (as well as the precise amounts of money spent in each location). Reviewers have generally referred to Wendy as a “drifter,” and while the word has some unsavory connotations, it’s apt enough—she lives out of her car and sleeps wherever she parks. And so does her aforementioned dog, Lucy (played by Reichardt’s own dog Lucy, who was also in Old Joy). The first thing Wendy does after tumbling out of the backseat is to open the trunk and retrieve a plastic dish and a big bag of kibble.
As shot by Reichardt in a patient, fixed take, this makeshift breakfast has the distinct ring of a ritual. We get the sense that Wendy and Lucy have seen plenty of mornings like this one, grey and unwelcoming, attended by the giggly gawking of passing teenagers and the by-the-book hectoring of local cops. Such are the indignities of a life lived off the grid, and the first thing you realize about Wendy and Lucy—besides the fact that it’s beautifully made from the very first shot, which quietly tracks the protagonists through a row of trees—is that Reichardt, working as she did in Old Joy from a short story by Jonathan Raymond, is unwilling (as she was in Old Joy) to either romanticize or condescend to her characters’ self-willed marginality. Whatever else we may suspect about Wendy—and there are subtle clues about the factors that precipitated her cross-country trip—the choices she makes are her own. Shortly after opening her trunk to find that the kibble bag is all but empty, she makes a choice that is very questionable indeed. She pinches a fifty-cent can of dog food from the local convenience store and gets caught in the act by a stock boy (Elephant’s John Robinson) whose ideas about justice tend towards the over-zealous.
A few critics have cited this episode as an example of Reichardt stacking the deck—why would a kid making minimum wage take such pains to cause trouble for a complete stranger? But even if the particulars are a bit clumsy, a later moment where Wendy comes across the boy getting picked up from work has the ring of truth. Slipping out the back door of the store, he perceives her presence and instantly averts his eyes; Wendy spitefully informs his mother that she should be very proud of her son; he gets in the car and it pulls away, leaving Wendy alone, an image that will be repeated several times throughout the film. And she really is alone, because in the intervening scenes—after the cops come to get her, take her to the station, put her in a cell, process her (the fingerprinting machine breaks down, adding further delay) and collect a fine that would have paid for a month’s worth of dog food—Lucy, whom she had left tied up in front of the store, has disappeared.
The use of an adorable mutt as the narrative’s structuring absence is effective on a several levels. It disrupts any potential road-movie trajectory, as Wendy won’t leave town until she gets her companion back (though the subsequent revelation that her car won’t start and may require an expensive overhaul with money she doesn’t have is an even more severe deterrent); it prods us to recognize just how isolated Wendy has become—or has purposely left herself—from other human beings; and, of course, it constitutes a good, hard tug at our heartstrings. But there’s no shift here towards melodrama. Just as Wendy holds herself together by focusing on the tasks at hand (fixing her car, finding her dog, getting out of town) the film stays focused on showing how somebody without much money, a fixed address or any mode of transportation goes about doing these things in a place where she might as well be invisible (and where being noticed is frankly not a very attractive option).
The rest of Wendy and Lucy thus progresses as a series of impasses, all registered by Williams with an ever-shifting mix of incredulousness, impatience, and resignation. The Michelle Williams-as-potential-major-actress train got rolling with Brokeback Mountain, and while she’s certainly fine in that film (especially considering that her role is the very definition of an afterthought, to the other characters and also to the filmmaker), it should be said that she was doing compelling work as far back as Dawson’s Creek, where she usually managed to cut through the teen-soap sanctimony (this may be why the show had no recourse but to kill her off at the end). Her performance here is a marvel of internalized desperation: in lieu of surface effects, Williams emphasizes Wendy’s attempts to maintain her composure. Reichardt only gives her one real outburst, and Williams manages it superbly as a bit of fitful hysteria—a rare and perhaps not unneeded moment of release for a young woman who tries her best to keep it all in at all times.
Wendy’s clenched, determined demeanor has led some viewers to invoke the Dardennes’ Rosetta, a comparison that proves instructive, if not necessarily successful. (For her part, Reichardt claims to have never seen any of the Belgian brothers’ films). The main difference, of course, is that where Wendy devotes her energies to operating outside of society, Rosetta wants in at all costs. The more apt comparison might be to L’Enfant: both films trace the flow of capital for people without bank accounts, and the scene where Wendy learns how much it will cost to fix her car is reminiscent of the moment in L’Enfant where Jérémie Renier’s low-level scam artist finds out that he owes some local gangsters 5,000 euros. For both characters, the news lands like a punch in the stomach (and in Renier’s case, he is literally being punched in the stomach).
What Wendy and Lucy shares with the Dardennes’ films—including their new and maddening (and probably underrated) Lorna’s Silence—is a means of suggesting interior life through external observation. Reichardt works to imbue gestures, objects, and, especially, locations with the sort of rhetorical/metaphorical heft that other filmmakers might entrust to dialogue. That said, there are some good actorly exchanges here, too. Will Patton (of all people!) triumphs in a small part as an overworked but attentive auto mechanic, and the great horror director Larry Fessenden, who starred in Reichardt’s Monte Hellman–inflected debut River of Grass and has a producer’s credit on Wendy and Lucy, is convincingly skeezy (as always) as another drifter who gives Wendy a good scare while she’s sleeping in the woods—not least of all because he represents one possible outcome for her lifestyle.
Ultimately, though, Wendy and Lucy is about a girl and her dog (shades, obviously, of Umberto D.), and the way the film manages to subvert both our best and worst expectations with regards to their eventual reunion is, like the ending of Old Joy, an instance of perfectly calibrated (but not obviously calculated) ambiguity. At this point, it’s not a stretch to say that Reichardt has positioned herself as a major American filmmaker, no matter how many times critics—even sympathetic ones—describe her films as “minor.” Certainly, they’re produced in a minor key—Reichardt is a congenitally understated director, and good for her—but at the same time, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy resonate with anger at a country that allows people to slip through the cracks (she says her initial inspiration for the project came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and suggestions from conservative pundits that the displaced residents of New Orleans might have worked harder to avoid their fate) and encompass a wide and nuanced spectrum of attitudes, ideas, and contradictions: the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest as a locus of both loneliness and self-discovery; the possibilities of Kerouacian escape against the harsh realities of what it means to be “on the road”; the slow, steady erosion of counterculture idealism in a bitterly divided America.
With its recognizable star and universal animal-in-peril narrative Wendy and Lucy is likely to reach a much wider audience than its predecessor, but it’s not a crossover bid. Consider it instead as another quietly urgent missive from what Oldham’s Old Joy character described in front of that campfire as “a falling-tear shaped universe”—a melancholy realm that, for a lot of people, will look distinctly like reality.