A love story about a girl and her dog on the wild frontier – that’s Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy. The film opens in a wooded clearing in the early light, where a small, wiry brunette plays fetch with a yellow-brown retriever. Reichardt captures the scene in one long, unravelling pan, and its throw-and-retrieve-parabola rhythm shows her film for the tragic romance it is.
Wendy Carroll is a girl with a few hundred bucks, a 1988 Honda Accord and a dog – Lucy – who is on her way to Alaska. “I hear they need people up there,” she tells the security guard at the Walgreen’s on the Portland outskirts. Wendy gets detained in Oregon when her car breaks down, and from there her troubles only multiply. After a self-righteous stock boy turns her in for stealing some fruit, bread and dog food from a supermarket – “If a person can’t afford dog food, then they shouldn’t have a dog” – Wendy is arrested, and spends the day in a cell at the police department. She comes back in the late afternoon to find Lucy missing from the bicycle rack she was tied to. The search for her lost friend consumes her, as she pastes up posters, hounds the dog pound, and – on a suggestion from her friend the security guard – wraps her own clothing around the lampposts, trees and telephone poles of the suburb, hoping Lucy will catch her scent and bed down. When her car is impounded at the garage, she is forced to spend a night without shelter and canine protection, and treks out to the woods. The menace and danger she finds there is the most trying, the most horrible and haunting part of the film – on the soundtrack, the heavy noise of freight-trains a leitmotif for desperation – and this episode echoes in a girl’s head long after the reel runs out. She bolts, finding sanctuary in a public restroom, open in the dead of night (never has a Shell station bathroom seemed so pure, safe and wholesome.) When Wendy is reunited with Lucy, she begins to rethink her responsibilities – and ultimately, with the dog ensconced at a foster home, Wendy anonymously jumps a freight train that’s headed north.
The film is based on Jon Raymond’s short story “Train Choir”, forthcoming at the end of this year in the collection Liveability. Reichardt has used Raymond before – his story “Old Joy” formed the inspiration for her previous feature film, a road movie that was (obnoxiously) dubbed “the indie Brokeback Mountain” by some critics, but was really much more on a miniscule budget. Old Joy is the story of two estranged friends who hike up Bagby Hot Springs in the Cascades: Mark (Daniel London) at the precipice of fatherhood, and Kurt (Will Oldham) between odd jobs and living out of his van. The tension of their different lives dissipates as they drink beers, shoot BBs, and climb the mountain together, and at the Springs, a new tension – of the homoerotic variety – takes hold. The film is rich and vivid like a temperate rainforest, and at its length (just 76 minutes) and scope (two days, one night), it earned Reichardt sweet accolades for a “beautiful little film.”
Wendy and Lucy is only four minutes longer, and it has the same Raymond touches – the Oregon atmosphere, the down-and-out characters, the pessimistic political undertones. Reichardt’s presence is felt in the intent and solid camerawork, the signature establishing shots, and, incidentally, in the presence of Lucy – the director’s own dog, who moonlights as herself in Old Joy, too. Reichardt’s not afraid of industrial “ugliness,” and some shots are crowded – with the dirt and noise of a railyard and the blanched grey parking lots of Wendy and Lucy, or the smokestacks and shuttered mills of Old Joy. But it’s also the case that she can’t resist capturing those leaks of beauty in the frame. Even the cruddiest parts of the Portland outskirts are tinged with a bit of sorrowful romance. Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu used similar establishing shots in his depiction of industrial post-war Tokyo – a milieu of smokestacks, billboards, garbage dumps and office buildings. Both directors lighten the heavy content of their palette with shots of red – a railroad light in the blue dawn – or the bright blue of an early spring sky.
Reichardt’s new film has a larger cast than her previous one, and the smallest performances are the most captivating. Wendy spars, psychologically, with a gambling mechanic, played expansive and sly by Will Patton. At the film’s beginning, Old Joy’s Will Oldham – ginger-haired and electric, with facial tats, a forearm cast and bright black eyes – spotlights as a former Alaskan cannery worker who regales Wendy with a story of operating “a two ton-earth mover in a state slightly less than sober.” The nameless security guard, played by Wally Dalton, is the film’s moral center.
Of course, one reason Reichardt’s film has gotten the amount of attention it deserves is the celestial pull of Michelle Williams – lo-fi in a brunette pageboy and cut-off corduroys. Williams gives a tenacious performance, her whole body – from her skittish, pale hands to her colt-ish ankles (one of them bandaged) – chiming Wendy’s anxiety, her cautiousness, and her joy. Funnily enough, what sticks with the viewer most is her voice. Wendy’s hum is the only musical accompaniment to Reichardt’s picture, and the tune slips in during scenes of contentment, often nondiegetically. In a lovely turn, the tune was orchestrated for synthesizer to accompany Wendy in the grocery store – homemade muzak.
Working together, Raymond and Reichardt begin call to mind a millennial Henry David Thoreau, the hermitic rebel-poet who endeavoured to live off the land in the backwoods of New England. The natural world may no longer exist in Concord, Massachusetts, but it’s still there to a certain extent in the Pacific Northwest – and in the final frontier, Alaska. Unlike so many urban-suburban centered independent filmmakers, the natural world figures large for this duo – and when Reichardt dwells long on a banana slug it’s like Thoreau whispering in your ear about the corrupt world outside Walden Pond.
Thoreau was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax so long as it funded the Mexican War and the continuation of slavery. “The only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits,” he declared, “is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.” Reichardt gives us long shots of Wendy alone in her cell, punctuated by a momentary release for another go at the digital fingerprint program (“This machine’s gonna kill me,” sighs the cop, manual in hand.) The gesture of imprisonment here is perfunctory and useless – what is the purpose of locking her up? – and the voice of the law, like Andy the stockboy, is shrill, petty, and morally defunct.
Audible in the background of Reichardt’s two latest films are the politics of Bush’s America, of a system without purpose or planning for the majority of its citizens. “Can’t get an address without an address, can’t get a job without a job,” laments Wendy and Lucy’s security guard. “The whole thing’s rigged.” The fact that Wendy finds a friend when she’s in need is luck, or happenstance. Reichardt sees it as a localized phenomenon. Discussing Wendy and Lucy at a Film Forum screening last week, Reichardt said, “Portland is a town where you would find help. But you could go not very much further and be invisible.”
At the movie’s end, Wendy realizes that the stockboy’s condemnation has a grain of truth – she can’t afford to keep a dog, even a soulmate. Her escape is difficult, with little boxcar romance – the bellowing train noise fills the ears, echoing the cognitive insanity of her earlier night-woods encounter. But by hopping on the train car she is jumping off the grid, and it’s a hopeful act. Thoreau said, given the choice, he would never go to Europe, “only to Oregon: eastward I only go by force, but westward I go free.” Leaving her New York home and heading due west, Reichardt doesn’t make “little films,” but coiled films, that take small matters as their subject and then unravel into portraits of epic heft.
In her second-last feature, we’re told that “sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy”; in Wendy and Lucy, loss is nothing but a long road’s weigh-station – Wendy can make a promise and stay on course.