I want to write on this great film in the greater length it deserves. But for now, in the absence of time and to encourage as many people as possible to see it: Kelly Reichardt is the great poet of contemporary American cinema. The West, the poor, marginalised or oppressed; a loneliness and ache lived against wonders of nature are some of her themes. Here, three interlinked stories of four women in Montana, framed through windows, or from outside the windshields of their cars, always near but always separated by something, at a distance, some trying to help, some trying to cheat, some oblivious to the passions they incite; all doing their best in difficult and often lonely circumstances. From the beginning, when you see Laura Dern framed in a circular mirror on the edge of the frame whilst the back of her adulterous lover occupies a larger portion of the rest, their looking at each other fractured for us through peeks at mirrors, the compositions are superbly expressive. Certain Women is so beautiful, visually and narratively, and the actors so superb: it will be a long time before I forget the image of Lily Gladstone’s beautiful face, stars in her eyes as she gazes longingly at Kristen Stewart. What a great film.
The 3-D is piercing — I literally shrank away from it (it was very effective though not pleasant). The colour is the brightest and happiest I have yet seen on digital. I adore seeing what Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis can do, even with roles so unworthy of their talents and their art. However, James Franco is the one with the meaty role and he makes the most of it: nobody could have captured the shabby, gauche, two-bit conman, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, sweet-but-not-innocent shyster of a wizard as well as he. He’s just perfect. Michelle Williams does better than anyone could possibly hope with that role (though, unless the intended look was mumsy, her make-up and costume people have done her no favours here). I love the doll character and Zach Braff voices the monkey with warmth and humour. The last scenes with the smoke and the face are superb. I liked it much more than I expected to.
The work of Kelly Reichardt is new to me and clearly a revelation. 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 (did she steal it? did she forget to pay? was she just checking that her dog was ok outside?).
When she comes out of jail, her dog is gone. Her car breaks down; it’s not worth fixing. A man abuses 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 her new job 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.
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.
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.