Kelly Reichardt is perhaps the most indispensable director working in independent American Cinema today, if not American Cinema altogether. Her films are lyrical, modest deconstructions of American mythos, dealing with decisiveness and doubt in times of great difficulty. Her 2006 film, Old Joy is an examination of masculinity and an exploration of responsibility during politically confused times. Her most recent, Meek’s Cutoff, ranks with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as the most meditative of anti-westerns. But between those two films, Reichardt made Wendy and Lucy, perhaps the most lastingly relevant and emotional film of her career. Deconstructing the road drama, suggesting the end of the industrial frontier, but positioning itself primarily as a recession drama, Wendy and Lucy relentlessly inspects selfishness and altruism in difficult times.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) has stopped in Oregon on her way to Ketchikan, Alaska, with only a little over $500, an old Honda Accord, and her dog, Lucy. Wendy sleeps in her car, brushes her teeth in a gas-station restroom, and has probably worn the same blue hoodie and cargo shorts for several days now. Oregon should have just been another in a long line of stops since leaving Indiana, but her car won’t start, and after running out of dog food, she gets caught shoplifting, losing $50 (plus the cost of a bus) and enough hours for Lucy to disappear from where the post she was tied up to. Wendy is living as so many do now, hand-to-mouth, on the edge, with just enough to scrape by as long as nothing goes wrong. But what happens if something does go wrong? That’s the question that drives the plot forward.
What ensues is not just an illustration of economic difficulties, but interactions that ponder our capacity for sympathy in mutually difficult times. The same security guard (Walter Dalton) who wakes her up to kick her off the lot becomes her only friend, the mechanic (Will Patton) gives Wendy a break on price, it’s only the employee who catches Wendy shoplifting who exhibits no sympathy. It’s one of the first things we see Wendy, do, however, and because we never learn much about Wendy—her only connection to the world seems to be through estranged family who dread her asking for money or help—what we make of her tells us a lot about ourselves. It’s easy to condemn her for stealing; as the employee says, “if a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.” Maybe so, but why can’t she afford a dog? Her only prospect seems to be a fish cannery, and the security guard works 12 hour shifts because there’s nothing else to do. “The mill closed a long time ago,” he tells Wendy. What should Wendy do? What would you do? Would you walk around a field collecting aluminum cans to scrape together change? She gives them away, possibly because she does not want to wait in line, but maybe she’s showing the compassion that she wants, too. There’s far more going on behind the scenes than is immediately apparent.
These questions are provoked through purely through observation. There is little music in Wendy and Lucy. Instead, Reichardt’s camera follows Wendy up and down sidewalks, staging the most important actions (such as the above-mentioned bottle turn-in) in long takes. It drifts from a bit overhead and looks into the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, which provides the glimmer of hope that keeps Wendy despite an otherwise isolated outlook. Reichardt wants us simply to observe and draw our own conclusions; hence the lack of narrative and back-story, hence the lack of superfluous style and diegetic embellishments. The sound comes from the hugely but unpretentiously symbolic freight trains we see at crucial points in the film, from trucks on the road, wind, Wendy’s humming. The type of quiet rural noise that is just too eerie to be as peaceful as it sounds. Reichardt is interested exclusively in the truth.
With that established, it’s needless to say that Wendy’s outlook is far from peaceful. There’s no money and no jobs nearby, Alaska is so far away it barely seems possible, and even if she could get there, all she has for sure is blind hope—think of what happened to the Joad Family when they arrived in California in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Her road journey is far from the glamour of Hopper’s Easy Rider or Kerouac’s On The Road. This is the road movie where the protagonist can barely even get on the road, let alone thrive on it. She has a frightening encounter with strangers when she is forced to sleep outside, and the group she meets at the beginning has no story for “tell them you know me” but has a great “don’t tell them you know me.” Sleeping in the car is far from comfortable, and a hotel is far from affordable. The days of driving around, magically having enough money for your essentials, and meeting helpful people are gone if they ever even existed.
There are wonderful scenes scattered throughout Wendy and Lucy. Although they would not spoil the the story, describing them here would certainly ruin the impressions they leave. Look for an exchange of money, the phrasing on posters, and wait patiently for the final scene. Despite Reichardt’s hands-off direction, this is a film that is beaming with emotion. That the simple story of a woman looking for her dog is able to tie together so many American myths is evidence of her talent. This is a film that could have been released during the Italian Neorealist movement—it’s not far from Umberto D in plot. Like those films, it did not have the biggest budget, but it has the biggest heart.