Viewed: From the Couch
Will Oldham steps from out the shadows in the early minutes of Kelly Reichardt's newest film, Wendy and Lucy, to set a tone but in a way to also create a bridge from Reichardt's previous film with Oldham, Old Joy. The two movies certainly share the same spirit but unlike his co-staring role in that film, Oldham is gone from Wendy and Lucy just as quickly as he emerged to stand in the glow of a camp fire, smile some blackened teeth (he is playing a guy named Icky after all), and tell tale of his experiences at a cannery in Alaska. He tells this tale to Wendy (Michelle Williams), who is on her way to the great mysterious state with her dog Lucy. She makes note of the cannery in her journal where she also keeps a strict tally of her thin budget -- a budget that looks to be taking a hit the next morning when her old Honda refuses to turn over. And not only that, but later the same day she gets arrested for shoplifting and looses Lucy. With her companion gone, the movie quickly turns into Wendy's struggle to keep her spirit and dreams alive.
The movie covers only two or three days as we resolve the issues of Wendy's car and what happened to Lucy. It's a brief story (I think the run-time is less than 90 minutes) that benefits from keeping it's focus on the here and now. There's thankfully no flashbacks, backstory or attempts to answer questions like "Why is Wendy going to Alaska?" or "What pushed her into this risky adventure?" You can breathe easy knowing that we're not going Into the Wild again. We simply follow Wendy, sometimes from a distance and sometimes intensely close, as she struggles to get her plan back on track. It's a plan for independence -- this is the dream that Alaska still extends, a place where a person willing to work doesn't need a good credit score and an email address to find a job. There's a hundred and one reasons a young soul would want to hit the road and start over somewhere else and it's refreshing that Wendy and Lucy spends little to no time going over which reason is Wendy's.
Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt present a wonderful character to observe in Wendy. She's tough as nails yet vulnerable, independent yet lost without Lucy, lonely yet striving to be on her own. With her no-fuss haircut, hoodie and cut off jeans, she might as well have been pulled out of a scene from Martin Bell's Streetwise. She has the routine down pat -- feed Lucy, freshen up in the gas station, collect some cans to save cash, etc. She seems very comfortable in the lifestyle, but once Lucy disappears and the routine is broken, Wendy has a hard time of keeping it together. While she's fiercely independent, she soon realizes how important Lucy was to her and getting her back (and getting the car running) is going to require help, favors and reliance on others. The sort of help she's clearly reluctant to ask for.
In Wendy's corner through all this is a drug store security guard. He was giving Wendy the heave-ho from the store parking lot when her car wouldn't start and can't help but give Wendy a hand in her troubles. The two characters form a bond that is one of the more remarkable relationships I've seen on film in recent memory. They never exchange names in the film or even shake hands. For this man, it's simply not right to sit idly by when you see someone in trouble. It's a philosophy that almost seems alien -- in life and in the movies -- especially from someone with a badge on their shirt. He's played by Wally Dalton, an actor and writer with credits going back to the 70s, and his character has the feeling of having sprouted from a crack in the sidewalk of that drug store. And possibly as a side-effect of being a low-budget film, there are moments between Wendy and the Security Guard when it feels like they are the only two people in Portland and it adds a weight to their scenes that makes their relationship even more bittersweet than the one the film's named after.
[There be spoilers that follow.]
In the last moments you realize you've not only been a fly on the wall for a turbulent couple of days in Wendy's life but really have seen a transition in her life take place; a gear shift, if you will, where she's painfully shed the last of her old life and perhaps the last lingering pieces of her childhood.
Early on when Wendy meets Icky and his group of hobo vagabonds in a make-shift campsite by the railroad tracks, there's a transfixing shot of Wendy, in the light of the moon and the campfire, standing in the woods looking at them play with her dog and it seems like there's a tear in her eye. There's a dozen reasons why she could be crying. Maybe because she's so proud of the happiness Lucy can bring people. But it doesn't quite look like a tear of happiness. I think it is a tear of loneliness. She doesn't feel comfortable just going up to these people even though Lucy has no problem with it. Their lifestyles my be similar but she doesn't belong. She's determined to do it alone. But at the end, there she is, without a car or a dog, and she knows it's painful to do it alone. She now knows it's safer to accept the fact that independence doesn't necessarily mean you can't ask for help. The question is what will she do the next time she runs into them?
I don' think I'll ever get tired of these small, personal little movies from Reichardt and I hope she continues on this one every couple of years schedule. They're these perfect little character studies that knock me on my ass and I don't think anyone else is creating characters that have me caring so much about what happens to them after the credits roll.
You're right about the opening shot - Reichardt is quickly becoming our finest auteur of the campfire - but I think it worked especially well in tandem with the later scene where the homeless man comes upon Wendy sleeping in the woods. His rambling and partially inaudible monologue, combined with Icky's opening scene, are what really set the movie apart from the more generic indie fare, and what make Reichardt such an interesting director.
To set up a rather large generalization, indie movies generally do one, and only one, thing well: establish true character through deliberate pacing and attention to detail. On one hand, this is what can make a small low-budget picture great, but what can also limit them artistically. From Slacker to the Bujalski circle and even including Old Joy, we can get from the mundane and the ordinary an extraordinary portrait of individual lives that simply cannot be gained from other genres. This is good, but there's more to cinema than capturing real life.
But wow, that opening shot was something else entirely, with Williams lit (I assume) only by the campfire and staring somewhere over the audience's shoulder as she listens to Icky. This is not the mundane or the ordinary, but a scene constructed to tell more about the true fear and horror behind Wendy's story, the kind of feeling that cannot be expressed simply through realism. The information Icky gives her is useless to the plot - she's going to Alaska anyway - and we don't see the characters again. And it's not even symbolic, but almost, well, a Lynchian sense of abstract fear. That is pretty cool.
I'm going to assume Reichardt has at least some familiarity with contemporary video art and experimental film because in between her realist shots of Wendy scribbling in her notebook and feeding the dog, she introduces some odd angles and stagings which stand outside the normal indie (or even feature film) playbook. Not just the two scenes I've mentioned, but also in one of the scenes between her and the security guard. At one point, Wendy is trying to get the man's attention, but the spacing of the characters is unclear - we get a crystal clear close-up of Wendy, but the shot of the security guard is faded and out of focus. Where are these guys in relation to one another? The yelling indicates that the guard is maybe twenty yards away, but the shot of the guard makes him seem like he is clear across the parking lot. It's such a simple narrative scene (Wendy gets guards attention) but the effect is jarring, with one or many meanings I wont bother to guess at. I suppose this could have been a simple continuity error, but the care of Reichardt's work makes that unlikely.
Now, as much as I did like these set pieces, as well as the way Reichardt captures the beauty and pain in simple walking (there are a lot of great shots where she seems imprisoned by all the cars racing by in this unfriendly pedestrian town), the dog thing was a bit overplayed. Maybe it's just because I don't like dogs, but the key Moment was obvious and unnecessary. I never figure out anything in movies, but I knew Wendy and Lucy would be splitting from about the time that the supermarket kid said "if you can't afford dog food, you shouldn't have a dog." In what was otherwise an original and moving movie, the final parting had all the subtlety of an afternoon special, and after the open ending of Old Joy, it's disappointing to see Reichardt resort to manipulating character through such a blunt act of closure.
I imagine, given all the damn dog lovers out there, that the penultimate scene will be the big tearjerker, but Reichardt got me earlier when the security guard handed Wendy a few bucks. Something in the delivery - the actor Dalton sort of shuffles his hand around - was just too damn real. Apart from simply caring deeply about her characters and story, Reichardt is doing something pretty amazing visually - something that makes her one of the best American filmmakers today - but damned if I can figure out what it is.
The scene of the security guard handing Wendy the three or four dollars absolutely killed me, much more than the goodbyes between Wendy and Lucy. That said, I appreciate the heaviness of the scene with Lucy as she cuts the last cord of her previous life. Maybe they could have come up with a different way to do it, maybe they were staying true to the source material, but to me that goodbye is the point of the movie and, yeah, it's there in the title too. Sometimes life is without subtlety and that's especially so in moments like those. And though that scene ties up a loose end, it is just as much a new beginning for Wendy as it is closure -- just like the new beginning that was achieved for the character of Mark at the end of Old Joy. To continue the parallel, the final shot of Wendy hopping the train is very reminiscent of the final shot in Old Joy. In both films we spend the final moments watching the characters from a distance, not knowing what will become of them but hoping for the best. I consider Wendy and Lucy to be extremely open-ended in this regard. I'm sure a lot of people with wrong-headed expectations will feel abruptly cut off by the ending -- Wait, we're not going to find out if she made it to the cannery? That would be real closure. We watch as she performs back-breaking work, makes good money and is able to send for Lucy and they're re-united in a joyful embrace as they roll around in the Alaskan snow, Lucy's tail feverishly wagging and licking the happy tears off of Wendy's face. But I guess we'll have to wait for Wendy and Lucy 2: The Quickening.
I want to take a moment to shine a small light on Larry Fessenden, the guy who played the creepy man who accosts Wendy in the woods. Fessenden is a great indie auteur himself, making some of the more memorable low-budget genre movies of the past 10 years or so starting with 1996's alcoholism/vampirism masterpiece Habit. But he's also a pretty damn good actor in his own right and has been showing up like this in movies ranging from Scorsese and Jarmusch to the work of other aspiring low-budget genre efforts. His work as a director is few and far between (I imagine his work isn't the easiest to get funded) but each one is utterly unique and worth seeking out.