One woman's search for her dog--and her humanity--during personal turmoil
The desolate closed-mill strip-mall town in Wendy and Lucy evokes the neglected post-empire Soviet housing complex of Lukas Moodysson's great and ignored Lilya 4-ever. There's the same pall of monochromatic miserabalism, of businesses shuttered, buildings pockmarked and deserted. Used, discarded people dot the landscape like stick-figure ghosts. It's social depression limned in cold grays, a great power gone neo-Third World. All that's in essence really changed in Kelly Reichardt's great new movie is the location; the desolation burg has moved to Oregon, its residents suffering the decline of another empire. Only four movies into her career--one of them the much praised Old Joy--and Reichardt has become the new depression's minimalist poet of underclass entropy.
If you've seen the poster, you've seen its premise. It's about a lost young woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams), owner of one pair of cutoffs, a thrift-store shirt, and a worn hoodie, who is accompanied by her beloved mutt, Lucy (Reichardt's own pooch). Wendy doesn't so much do: she needs. For unclear reasons, she's on the run from a "cash-strapped" family in Indiana and needs to get her '88 Honda clunker and Lucy to Alaska where she thinks she'll finally find a job, or just escape. Unlike the world around her, Reichardt respects Wendy's privacy.
Tying Lucy to a bike rack outside a grocery store, Wendy tries to nick some dog food only to be pinched by a self-righteous Christian dickhead food stocker (Michael Brophy). His dickishness isn't a hipster indie-film potshot, but shorthand for both the lunacy of sticking to the letter of the law in lawless times and just how pitifully low in the pecking order the stocker has become: Why, he has a relative with a car that almost works! Take that, homeless bitch!
So Wendy goes to jail where nobody appears to know quite what they're doing or how things work. When she gets out, Lucy is gone and the Honda's engine is dead. The rest of the movie--co-written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond--plays like an extended low-level panic attack as Wendy scours the town for her friend.
Williams, who played Heath Ledger's sweet but barely there wife in Brokeback Mountain and a vacuous model in I'm Not There, has shown unique skill at creating dissolving women. But nothing could prepare you for what she does here, which is based to a great extent on the unnerving spectacle of Williams mutely sucking the air out of a scene and then gasping on what isn't left. Marisa Tomei commits one of 2008's finest displays of minimalist acting in The Wrestler--creating a deep character out of a shifting lexicon of freighted smiles--but Williams uses even less to evoke just as much.
It's her gaze. There's this awful tremor in her eyes even as her face freezes while a mechanic (Will Patton) adds up the total for the car's repairs. (Patton's studied quirkiness is the movie's sole flaw.) Later, while trying to sleep on cardboard boxes she dragged into the woods, she's set upon by a babbling lunatic/possible rapist (art-horror-director and Wendy co-producer Larry Fessenden). Reichardt cuts to an extreme close-up of Wendy's eyes and her only visible reaction: Her pupils dilate--which means Williams is so freaking in the terrified moment she's acting on a vascular level.
It's not until the creep leaves and Wendy stumbles to the toilet of a filling station with no name or visible employees that she finally loses her shit, screaming, ripping off her soiled clothes, washing her face like she wants to grind the world off of her. Reichardt does not expose Wendy's body. To do so would sexualize her, which just makes no sense in a world too exhausted for desire.
Eventually, Wendy finds an ally of sorts in her quest. But as Wendy and Lucy is, at a brisk 88 minutes, much like a flawless short story, we'll say little of that except that this person offers the black joke that, if you endure long enough, you might even get a job doing nothing in double shifts.
Stylistically, Reichardt is elegant to the point of technical invisibility--which makes the one overtly stylized moment all the more devastating. It's a Kubrickian Steadicam drift past a seemingly endless line of dog cages filled with exhausted, beaten creatures.
Also integral to the movie's success is its brilliantly crafted soundscape. In lieu of music, Wendy offers the rumble and yawn of groaning trains, creaking machinery, and other rusty mechanical last gasps suggestive of an Americana Einstürzende Neubauten. Sam Levy's cinematography pointedly contrasts and blends the blanched town and lushness of the Oregon woods, suggesting a nil-budget reiteration of I Am Legend's central visual, of nature in the inexorable process of reclaiming this newly dead world.
And Wendy? Despite everything, when an act of absolute selflessness is required she can still come up with it. Despite everything, her humanity is still intact, and Reichardt's movie is essential, even inspiring