Traversing the West in search of work in Alaska, Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog, Lucy, are separated when Wendy’s car breaks down in a nameless, borderline decrepit city in Oregon. Accused of theft at a grocery store while Lucy waits outside, tethered to a pole, Wendy is held in the manager’s custody until the police can apprehend her, by which time Lucy has disappeared. Wendy’s progress in searching for Lucy is hampered by devastating news regarding the condition of her ancient Honda when it refuses to start one morning, plunging Lucy into full-fledged economic turmoil. The security guard at the Wal-Mart outside of which Wendy illegally parks and sleeps (the heartwarmingly sensitive and sage Walter Dalton) and the mechanic tending to her Honda (a matter-of-fact but empathetic Will Patton) do everything in their power for Wendy as they come to admire her grit and resolve.Together they nurse a flicker of light at the end of Wendy’s increasingly gloomy tunnel. This being a Reichardt film, the tunnel, which is to say the journey, is indeed endless. Stranding her protagonist in Oregon yet again, Reichardt is not as interested in the scenic beauty of the state as she is its purgatorial nature, stripping away its beauty in service of illuminating themes of poverty and loneliness. Wendy and Lucy is the most vivid example of the infinite journey and all that informs its construction, visually and thematically, in Reichardt’s cinema.
Wendy and Lucy is generally regarded as Reichardt’s finest work not merely for qualitative reasons but for the endearing comparisons that it summons both political and cinematic, though the former aspect will be analyzed later in this profile. A simple story in which a far from earth-shattering ordeal is rendered transcendent and spiritually significant, Wendy and Lucy is much the film that Bresson would have made today. A concise, eloquent and unflinching depiction of noble suffering – Wendy leaves Lucy with her new, more financially stable owners – the pitiable but virtuous outsider Wendy Carroll is a veritable reincarnation of legendary Bresson characters Fontaine (A Man Escaped/Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, 1956), Marie (Au hasard Balthazar, 1966) and Mouchette (Mouchette, 1967), abused outsiders who endured a tragic existence in service of a deeper, often religious cause. Fontaine is not quite as comparable – he does indeed escape to freedom – but for practically the duration of the film he is trapped, desperate and no more expressive than Wendy. In considering Lucy’s well being rather than selfishly pry her from a family that can feed her and provide her with a yard to romp around in, Wendy is a protagonist after Bresson’s own heart. In her understated and empathetic treatment of Wendy’s plight, Reichardt’s film is affected with Bressonian realism as thoroughly as any work released since her career as a feature director was rejuvenated.
The undecorated, even drab aesthetic perfectly suits the position in which Wendy Carroll is mired, stuck in a small, dreary town with $262 to her name, no vehicle and no company. Hands in pockets, eyelids weighing heavy, lips practically pursed, Williams physically embodies the profound sadness of her situation to utter perfection. Reichardt is able to mobilize vital themes of loneliness and hopelessness through the extraordinarily talented actress’s expressions rather than resort to the expository dialogue crutch. Williams is as elemental to the effectiveness of Reichardt’s undecorated aesthetic as the positioning of her camera; her long, blonde Dawson’s Creek hair cut in a boyish style and dyed a murky brown, an ill-fitting plaid shirt and dark blue sweatshirt her uninspired uniform, a backpack and not a purse her only functional accessory, Williams is rendered destitute and asexual, Reichardt playing off her iconography and subverting her star persona as a way of highlighting the direness of her ordeal. In diluting her physical beauty Reichardt and Williams effectively reconfigure the term.
The lack of riveting action in Wendy and Lucy is not to be mistaken for lack of conflict. Reichardt certainly dwells on the seemingly mundane for reasonably long stretches but every frame in the film serves to further the plot and enhance characterization. A trim 80 minutes, the film’s pacing is eminently contemplative but not at the expense of cultivating tension. On the contrary, the relatively languid pacing amplifies the tension, Reichardt drawing out Wendy’s search for Lucy in such a way that the “almost unbearable suspensefulness” which Ebert acknowledged in Old Joy is even improved upon for in this case the determinant of suspense, Lucy, is animate and emotionally significant. Lucy is out there somewhere, and while the audience fears for the worst – justifiably, given the consistently mounting hindrances to Wendy’s journey – the audience inherently harbours a semblance of hope, for no fate has been sealed and Wendy has shown no signs of forfeiting her search. Reichardt brilliantly sustains the tension by developing the friendship between Wendy and the elderly Security Guard with nuanced warmth. The Security Guard allows Lucy to use his cell phone once a day to call the pound, legitimizing our hope that Lucy may indeed by recovered. When the Security Guard shows up on his day off to inform Wendy of Lucy’s whereabouts, he hands her eight dollars – “Don’t let her see,” he demands, referring to his wife – a profoundly heartwarming moment that illustrates the theme of poverty so relevant in every scene but not reversed to Wendy’s favour until this very instance. In the context of Lucy’s predicament and that which the Security Guard can afford to give, eight dollars carries more meaning than a blank check.