"You can't get an address without an address.
You can't get a job without a job.
It's all fixed."
Wendy walks through the woods with her golden lab retriever Lucy, playing fetch. The camera hangs back at a distance, gliding along for more than a minute simply to watch a woman and her dog play. It is the most luminous shot in any film released in theaters this year.
The sheer pleasure of watching bodies move through space and time has become even more precious as Hollywood editing has become increasingly frenetic. Employed at the beginning of the film, the long tracking shot acts like a decompression chamber, allowing viewers the chance to slowly acclimatize to the film before diving headlong into the first close-up. It also situates its two leads tangibly in an environment that will play such a crucial role in the story.
This spare opening shot establishes a tone that director Kelly Reichardt maintains throughout the film, a minimalist approach that inspires lazy critics to refer to it as "simple" even though it's the kind of film that very few directors are capable of pulling off. Hemingway is a "simple" writer too.
Wendy Carroll (Michele Williams) is on her way to Alaska to find work at a fishery when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town. She carries all her worldly possessions with her: just over $500, several layers of raggedy clothes and a nearly-empty bag of dog kibble. Faithful Lucy doesn't mind, but Wendy knows that for someone who lives off the grid, with no apparent support system, this is a crisis.
She goes shopping for dog food and, either carelessly or intentionally, walks out the door without paying for it. An officious, squeaky-clean prick of a sales clerk makes sure she is punished for "breaking the rules" and she is hauled to the police station while Lucy stays tied up in front of the store. By the time Wendy returns, Lucy is gone and she spends the rest of the film searching for her companion.
From this "simple" premise, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond spin a story that speaks more to the human condition and to politics in America than any film in recent memory. The entire system is rigged against Wendy. A $50 fine for shoplifting is a body blow. A $30 fee (a real deal) to tow her car fifty feet is the insult added to injury. A regressive system of fines that are a mere nuisance to privileged Americans is crippling to a woman with $500, no bank account, and no credit card. Checking for Lucy at the dog pound is even a complicated task for someone with no cell phone. But then again, as the smug sales clerk says, a woman who can't afford dog food shouldn't have a dog.
Reichardt builds an entire town from a handful of locations: the grocery store, the dog pound, the garage and a Walgreen's parking lot. It's in the latter place that Wendy finds a friend. A kind security guard (Wally Dalton) with big eyebrows and lots of free time on his hands offers a sympathetic ear and a cell phone that serves as Wendy's only lifeline to her dear lost Lucy. The woods surrounding the town also play a major part in the movie. While it wouldn't be accurate to describe "Wendy and Lucy" as a landscape film, it still captures a sense of a specific time and place with the indexical power of a documentary.
Michelle Williams delivers an unassuming, committed performance that announces her as one of the greatest actresses in cinema today, though it may be too quiet and "simple" to garner the attention it deserves during awards season. Williams wore no makeup and went without showering for weeks to submerge herself in the role but, as Reichardt joked on stage in Toronto this year, "She still looks like that. I hate her." Williams also provides the only musical cue in the film before the end credits, an ethereal, melodic humming that appears out of nowhere in the opening tracking shot but returns as diegetic sound later in the film. It is another beautiful touch in a truly beautiful film, and I think I'll be humming it for the next several months.
The universe of "Wendy and Lucy" is cruel but not uncaring. She encounters her share of kindness along the way even though she sometimes does her pig-headed best to deflect it. But the cards are stacked against her. If you're alone, unemployed and poor in America, you're not a team player. You don't fit into the system. You're just a nuisance.
"Wendy and Lucy" tells a moving story about a woman and her dog, provides a documentary portrait of the American Northwest, and conveys a piercing political critique in just under eighty minutes of efficient, eloquent filmmaking. That doesn't sound "simple" to me. If it was so simple to make, "Wendy and Lucy" wouldn't be the best American feature film of 2008. Which it is.
A 10/10 on the DVDTown scale.