The work of Kelly Reichardt was until recently new to me. I’ve now seen Wendy and Lucy three times and it continues to be a revelation: it gets richer each time. In Film Comment, James Naremore called Wendy and Lucy ‘one of the most tense and moving treatments of the thin line between poverty and chaos since The Bicycle Thief ‘(Vittorio Da Sica, Italy, 1948). It’s high praise indeed but the film earns it. Wendy and Lucy is a poetic, heartbreaking movie about a young girl on her way to Alaska to get a job. Wendy (Michelle Williams) leaves her dog tied up outside a rural supermarket whilst she goes in to get some things but gets arrested for leaving the shop without paying for a small amount of dog food.
The scene in the supermarket demonstrates the moral complexity this great film is capable of conveying. We know Lucy stole the dog food because we see her very deliberately put a donut in her pocket whilst looking both ways down the aisle. The young man who catches her in the act is self-righteous and pompous and about the same age as her. Nothing much divides them — he’s clearly a working class kid; his mother picks him up after work — except he’s got a job. But in the world of Wendy and Lucy having a job makes for a world of difference, as does being caught stealing a can of dog food. She denies everything. But when they reach into her pocket the find the dog food. The manager is hesitant to call the police on a can of dog food. The young man embodying all the traits of a young Republican, insists on following company policy, under the mantra that the rules apply to everybody. But an application of the rules means that this young, vulnerable woman, goes to jail, gets a criminal record which will inhibit her abilities to get an income in future, the small fine is ten per cent of her worldly wealth, and she’s got a long way to go before she finds herself in a position of gaining any income at all. And when she returns from jail, her dog, which she’d left outside the supermarket, has disappeared. All for a can of dogfood. The gap between following the rules — the law- and any sense of justice is vast in the America of Wendy and Lucy.
When Wendy comes out of jail, her dog is gone. Her car breaks down; it’s not worth fixing. A man robs her in the night whilst she’s sleeping rough; her family can’t help her. All she loves in this world is that dog and now Lucy’s lost. Wendy needs every penny to get to Alaska, seemingly the only place offering work, and now she’s got no car, her savings are leaking away and she has to find her dog. Like in melodramas of the 1930s, at the end of the film Wendy finds the dog but leaves her where she found her because Lucy’s now in a better home than Wendy can offer: Wendy sacrifices her wants for the dog’s good and hops on a freight train to try and get some work. Replace child with dog and you have a modern-day Depression melodrama but without the excesses.
In an interview with Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant writes on the film, ‘Oh, is it going to happen like that? Where you get a parking ticket and that leads to lifetime imprisonment if you make the wrong move. And that comments on our society, how society is able or not to take care of its people. Wendy and Lucy for me was about our materialistic society. If you don’t have a few bucks, you’re going to have to live in the woods, because Wendy sort of is in the woods.’ In response to this observation, Reichardt tells us that, ‘The seeds of Wendy and Lucy happened shortly after Hurricane Katrina, after hearing talk about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and hearing the presumption that people’s lives were so precarious due to some laziness on their part. Jon (Raymond, novelist and screenwriter) and I were musing on the idea of having no net—let’s say your bootstraps floated away—how do you get out of your situation totally on your own without help from the government? We were watching a lot of Italian neorealism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. There’s a certain kind of help that society will give and a certain help it won’t give. So we imagined Wendy as a renter; no insurance, just making ends meet, and a fire occurs due to no fault of her own and she loses her place to live. We don’t know her backstory in the film but we imagined Wendy was in that kind of predicament.’
Michelle Williams, slight body curled up inward, is like a grief-stricken waif — vulnerable to all the elements but with inner composure; and she makes the audience understand every emotion that Wendy feels; the audience is put in the position of offering this lonely, vulnerable but hard-working and determined girl the empathy her world denies here.
Reichardt’s sober, handsome and evocative imagery — which I understand has been influenced by the photographs of Joe Deal and Robert Adams — does not spare the viewer. The film abounds in stark, striking images of rural alienation, poverty and want; there’s now a very thin line between poverty and total destitution in the land of plenty. It’s a world where a little gesture of kindness (here only six dollars) can means so much. The long shots are wide so that you see Wendy traverse the shot, a vulnerable figure amongst broken down houses, tract malls, derelict factories, railway tracks and highways that merely traverse this place people are merely stuck in. The film often places Wendy behind glass so that we see both what’s behind her and what’s reflected in front of her, a corroded unworkable America. The editing often stays on the background a beat after Wendy has passed through it as if to emphasise the emptiness, degradation and isolation. Sheer loneliness lived amongst industrial ruins
At the end, Wendy ends up where she started but minus dog and car. It’s a heartbreaking story, delicately told, and with an acuity and expressiveness that reverberates like a good haiku. ‘After watching Wendy and Lucy’, says Gus Van Sant, the sense of people being of no use to society..of being a blight like stray dogs, ‘was just palpable. It was so omnipresent. I was part of the film, but the film had stopped. I was actually now in my own version of it, just dealing with my life. It had infused me with its own story. I was still living it, which is a great achievement, and really hard to do. It’s a delicate thing to get somebody into a feeling that they can’t actually get rid of right away’. It’s what art does and art is what Wendy and Lucy is.
It’s also worth mentioning how palpable the gender of its director is in the story-telling. Wendy dresses and undresses in the gas station, she changes panties, and the focus is on Michelle Williams thin legs, accenting her deprivation and vulnerability. When Wendy is forced to sleep on the woods and a threatening male approaches her, the threat of sexual danger is palpable, but the camera focusses on Michelle Williams’ face, half-covered by a blanket, so that the accent is entirely on her eyes. I can’t imagine a heterosexual male director de-sexualising the scenes in this way, putting the accent so firmly on dramatising Wendy’s fears and vulnerability.
That actors like Michelle Williams continue to support the making of art in American cinema (not least with their performances) is a great credit to them; that such films are not finding the audience they deserve is a great shame and a kind of indictment of us all.