Show Hide image

One woman and her dog

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film revives Italian neo-realism in America’s west

<strong>Wendy and Luc

You don’t rush Kelly Reichardt. Her dreamy 1994 debut, River of Grass, was an anti-Bonnie and Clyde story (the main characters believe they’ve committed a murder, but haven’t). Twelve years later she made Old Joy, an elliptical and, yes, dreamy study of the briefly reignited friendship between two former pals, one poised to become a father, the other practically a hobo. With uncharacteristic haste, she has now directed her follow-up. And if Wendy and Lucy is another Reichardtian story of an odd couple adrift in America – assuming that so underproductive a director can be awarded her own adjective – it does vary in one crucial respect: the dreaminess is gone. It’s time to wake up.

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) is travelling with her scrawny golden retriever, Lucy, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to find work at the Northwestern Fish cannery. “They need people,” Wendy says in one of many weighted utterances in a script (by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond) that is haunted by Beckett and Pinter. Woman and dog stop in a nondescript town in Oregon, where they snooze in the car. Next morning, a security guard (Walter Dalton) with a tobacco-yellow mane gently asks if the vehicle can be moved, but it won’t start. Wendy crunches the key in the ignition, struggling to conceal her despair like a boozer trying to hold steady his seventh highball.

Until now, Michelle Williams has been known for one scorching moment – recoiling mutely from her husband’s infidelity in Brokeback Mountain – which proved how forceful minimalism could be. She plays variations on that note of strangulated misery throughout Wendy and Lucy. Apart from a brief crying scene, she stays reined-in for the entire film, wearing a tomboyish shag-cut that suggests a hairdresser’s revenge. Wendy uses little more than a hurt look to implore a supermarket manager not to call the police when she is caught shoplifting. She stifles her panic when the cops haul her away, leaving Lucy outside the shop. When she returns to find Lucy gone, she has to plead with a whole new set of officials at the dog pound, where the pooch may be languishing.

The film is taken up with Wendy’s search for Lucy – she pins handmade posters around town, and that nice security guard lets her use his mobile to hassle the pound. They chat. He must be in his sixties, but he’s working 8-’til-8 every day, guarding nothing that seems worth guarding. All the while, Wendy waits on her car as a mechanic (Will Patton), who wears cavity-search gloves and natters like a DJ (“What’s up? Start talking! I’m listening”), prepares his diagnosis.

So we’ve got a person in severe economic hardship, who is also in trouble with the law, deprived of any realistic means of transport, and pining after a missing animal. Either those are the ingredients of Italian neo-realism or my name is Vittorio de Sica. The specifics may be different – the camera drifts between petrol station forecourts, vacant lots, unremarkable storefronts. And the sound design, by the innovative Leslie Shatz, weaves a symphony of rattling boxcars and honking freight trains; if you took a cassette recorder to a railroad, you would have most of the film’s score.

Those cultural signposts aside, this is unmistakably the territory of Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D and Rome, Open City. Reichardt invokes the stark, blank language of de Sica and Rossellini to show Wendy falling through the cracks on her way to economic oblivion. All around her are the harbingers of what she might become.

There is a deranged, modern-day Pan played by America’s finest living songwriter, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy); as he dances around a campfire, he resembles a decadent god waited on by multiply pierced handmaidens. Then there are the destitute and disabled queuing at bottle depots to get cash for trash.

But most chilling is Wendy’s tour of the pound, just after she has been released from her own cell. As she stares into the eyes of the dejected mutts, she could be gazing into a mirror.

I expect there will be more stories like Wendy and Lucy’s in the coming months and years. The wonder will be if they articulate their compassion and distress with such unforced eloquence.

Pick of the week

The Class (15)
dir: Laurent Cantet
This study of life at a high school in suburban Paris is an education in itself.

Watchmen (18)
dir: Zack Snyder
Fan boys (and girls) rejoice: Alan Moore’s revered graphic novel reaches the screen at last.

The Young Victoria (PG)
dir: Jean-Marc Vallée
Emily Blunt – best young actress in Britain? Discuss.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload