Sometimes, less really is more. Two weeks before Christmas, at the very time prestige pictures and tinsel-bedecked holiday behemoths lumber into theaters, one of the year’s very best movies materializes for an underpublicized limited run — a frugally executed, relatively short, deceptively simple narrative in which a solitary traveler searches for something irreparably lost.
Modest but cosmic, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is a movie whose sad pixie heroine, Wendy (Michelle Williams), already skating on thin ice, stumbles and, without a single support to brace herself, slides into America’s lower depths. Introduced calling for her dog, Lucy, Wendy loses first her liberty (briefly), then Lucy (again), and, finally, her car in the course of a dead-end road trip from deepest Indiana to the Alaskan frontier. Freedom’s just another word….
This prescient tale — which, like her previous feature, Old Joy (2006), Reichardt adapted from a story by Jon Raymond and shot in the Pacific Northwest — is haunted by lonesome freight trains, hobo jungle solidarity and the idea of redeeming empty beer bottles for gas money. Reichardt has described her movie as a post-Katrina story: Although it’s never made obvious, Wendy apparently lost everything except Lucy in some previous catastrophe. Her beat-up Honda dies as she’s passing through a small Oregon town; waiting for an estimate on repairs she knows she’ll never be able to afford, she drifts into a supermarket and, overcome by the spectacle of abundance, pockets a beef jerky and some dog food.
With its quiet camera and fondness for long shots, Wendy and Lucy is so relentlessly understated that it comes as a shock to notice that the supermarket employee who grabs Wendy as she leaves is wearing a crucifix. Delivered with equal adamance, his is the movie’s key line: “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog!” Wendy is booked, photographed, fingerprinted (twice, as it’s a new machine the cops are not totally familiar with), and fined $50. By the time she returns to the supermarket, Lucy is gone. Wendy walks around hopelessly calling for her — it’s the worst day of her trip, if not her life.
By midmovie, Reichardt has succeeded in defamiliarizing the whole notion of a dog — or rather making it synonymous with Wendy’s humanity, which, is to say, Wendy’s inchoate yearning. At one point, she laboriously crafts a few signs to paste up, captioning Lucy’s picture with the words, “I’m lost!!!” as though the identification were total. Lucy, played by Reichardt’s own dog, is a suitably charismatic mutt, and Wendy does encounter a few locals, notably a pitiless garage mechanic (Will Patton) and a sympathetic security guard (Walter Dalton), who charitably allows her to use his cell phone as her contact with the dog pound. But, save for Lucy, Wendy is alone; the movie is essentially a solo turn.
Trembling throughout on the verge of a tearful breakdown but far too dignified to allow her character to choke up, Williams delivers a sensationally nuanced performance that, were it not so resolutely undramatic, would constitute an aria of stoical misery. Determined and self-contained in her dark-blue hoodie and cut-down pedal pushers, Wendy is a meticulous vagabond who keeps careful accounts of her meager expenses and manages to perform her ablutions every morning in a gas station washroom. In the movie’s bleakest, scariest moment, this grimy closet serves as her sanctuary.
Spare, actor-driven, socially aware and open-ended, Wendy and Lucy has obvious affinities to Italian Neorealism. Reichardt has choreographed one of the most stripped-down existential quests since Vittorio De Sica sent his unemployed worker wandering through the streets of Rome searching for his purloined bicycle, and as heartbreaking a dog story as De Sica’s Umberto D. But Wendy and Lucy is also the most melancholy of American sagas.
If a person can’t afford dog food, maybe they shouldn’t oughta live. And if the filmmaker weren’t so doggedly, unsentimentally prosaic, she might have called this ballad Pictures of the Gone World or even “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
WENDY AND LUCY | Directed by KELLY REICHARDT | Written by REICHARDT and JON RAYMOND, based on the story “Train Choir,” by RAYMOND | Produced by NEIL KOPP, ANISH SAVJANI and LARRY FESSENDEN | Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories | Sunset 5