In Dire Straits

Wendy and Lucy. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Playing Dec. 10 at Film Forum

The fiercely solitary protagonist of Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Wendy and Lucy, struggles to face an abysmal reality. The film follows a few dreary days excerpted from a long road trip across the country. The journey has already begun and it doesn’t end. Through the film’s steady pacing and restrained focus, Wendy becomes a victim of her own passivity. The open road acts as a meditative space which Reichardt explores with an undercurrent of political discontent. As a director, she hints at a theme, whether it be a the shortcomings of liberalism, as in Old Joy, or of our economy, as with Wendy and Lucy.

Michelle Williams as a restless Wendy © Oscilloscope Pictures.

In Old Joy, Reichardt’s first major feature, a young man with a job, a house, and a pregnant wife decides to take a road trip with an old friend who has led a life as a wanderer, living in his van and buried by financial burdens. Their trip feels tender and sorrowful, and as nostalgia sets in, the old friendship parts. In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy’s circumstance as a woman confronted with mounting problems sets up a story that tells more about society than of Wendy.

The film takes place in Portland, Oregon, where Wendy and her dog Lucy have chosen to sleep for the night. The visual pattern alternates medium shots with close ups. A humming tune acts as a contemplative rhythm, suggesting a theme for the story. It may come from Wendy, or may hover over a scene like a soundtrack. The tune is neither depressive or ominous, but rather questioning and lost. Wendy and Lucy walk aimlessly through shrubby forest. After Wendy loses sight of Lucy, she finds her among a group of drifters. They are dressed in a “gutter punk” aesthetic similar to Wendy’s, but they form a scene, a purposefully dejected and scrappy community. They hunker down around a roaring fire and the warm orange light illuminates their dirty skin and tattered clothes. The camera slowly makes its way across their faces as they speak, but we hear only the deep, heavy rumbling of freight trains moving past, another sound that recurs and seems to communicate danger. Wendy, although living a life similar to the punks, has chosen to disengage from the comfort of the pack. She wears gender neutral clothes, a boyish haircut, and exudes a distaste for bureaucracy. Only Lucy assuages her loneliness. Will Oldham, Reichardt’s real-life friend and collaborator on the film, makes a disturbing cameo as a sketched-out loon. He tells Wendy a story while weaving in and out of the camera’s frame with serpentine gesticulations. Moments that might turn violent or creepy evoke fears that something terrible may happen, and that tension plays out in Wendy’s face. As Wendy, Michelle Williams translates silence into performance. She lives in constraint. Wendy puts up a huge guard between herself and the world, always hoping to reveal nothing.

We never learn why Wendy has left home or exactly what she intends to do in her vague destination, Alaska. The film plugs along, employing repetitive sounds and imagery. The midday sunlight that filmmakers avoid because of its bright and often ugly quality casts a particular anxiety onto Wendy and Lucy as they navigate a sprawling, wasted town. Buildings are either new and boxy, and encircled by endless parking, or remnants of a '70s palette like formica chairs in old bus stations and grocery stores with yellowed walls. Director Reichardt pauses for brief interludes of beauty, framing in the upper corner of the screen a row of pigeons sitting precariously on a telephone wire, fluttering their wings and adjusting their balance behind a sharp blue sky. The camera often returns to images of abandoned train cars stacked in rows like forgotten toys. Reichardt captures a suffocating mediocrity, an America mired by unemployment.

As an experiment in spare naturalism, the film attempts to do a lot with very little. Watching Wendy wait—the main focus of the story—reveals the film’s problematic conceit. The script relies heavily on Wendy keeping her problems close; Williams described her performance as “no leaking of emotion”. Wendy, a loner unable to respond to a stranger’s act of kindness with a simple “thank you” or even able to stand up for herself, applies a strain to the story. Slight inconsistencies in her character prevent the film from feeling natural, and Wendy plays more like a narrative device than a real person.

Lucy the dog exemplifies this problem. The chemistry that should be tangible between Wendy and Lucy is absent. Lucy never behaves like Wendy’s dog. Lucy, it turns out, belongs to Reichardt. Having the director’s dog star in the film is a sweet touch in theory, but in practice Lucy proves a detriment to plausibility. Wendy calls to Lucy and plays with her in a loving way but the dog does not respond with the requisite intimacy. Wendy comes off as her sitter.

Wendy prefers one word responses, and can hardly look into someone’s eyes when they speak. Her reactions are so barren that the validity of her situations become questionable. People Wendy interacts with, mostly men, show deference to her being a woman, even though she hopes to recede into her surroundings. This aspect gives the film a unique tone, because it discloses what people think of her while in some way holding her responsible for the outcome. Wendy does not use her femininity coyly, but despite her attitude, men will either do her favors or act abusively towards her. By denying her predicament, she wraps herself deeper in it.

The emotional and physical hardship that a lack of money forces upon someone, and the scattered ambitions that Americans are wooed and then trapped by, form a key aspect of Kelly Reichardt’s overarching investigation. Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy examine yearnings for independence that are both financial and personal. Wendy embodies the spirit of the do-it-yourself movement adopted by many as a structured way of living that relies upon self-sufficiency. She mimics the DIY methodology in practice, but has little control over herself. As much as she tries to live on the fringe and recede into the background, her gender makes her different. She can’t escape the world that judges her appearance and she also can’t deal with it. As a fearful young woman, she tells a story that, at least cinematically, has been mostly reserved for fearless young men. This difference gives the film a special strength. It illuminates the difficulty of Wendy’s decision to leave home and the outcome refutes any romanticism. Whether or not it’s possible for someone like Wendy to exist, her story does.

Contributor

Camila de Onís

CAMILA DE ONIS is a Brooklyn-based writer who wants a dog like Lucy.

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