Tuesday, May 05, 2009

You can't get a job without a job.

Back when my mom was teaching Bible studies, she would frequently caution against topical sermons, which she said offer an easy understanding of the lesson at hand but leave the congregation with little sustenance. Perhaps this is why it feels like pointing out that Wendy and Lucy is the perfect movie for the current economic crisis is both obvious and a backhanded compliment. But there's nothing obvious about Wendy and Lucy; the story of a few days in the life of a woman in transit and her dog, director Kelly Reichardt's third feature is proudly, perhaps defiantly elusive. It's a movie in a minor key, but if you find yourself on its wavelength (as I did), it's an emotionally wrenching experience, one person's story as a universal meditation on alienation and loss.

We meet Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy (Reichardt's dog, also named Lucy) as they're making their way to Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find work at a cannery. We don't learn much about what motivated Wendy to make the trip from Indiana, though a tense phone call with her brother-in-law and her anxious encounters with people she meets suggests that money wasn't the main reason. Wendy wakes one morning to discover that her car won't start, which starts a chain of small events that accumulate into a devastating turning point in Wendy's life. Reichardt never reaches for dramatic effect, observing from a medium distance as Wendy's world quietly falls apart - every shot is impeccably composed, using the minimalistic settings to maximum effect. When most movies are becoming faster and louder, to see a film that recalls Ozu and De Sica is a shock to the senses, as Reichardt's deliberate approach places us in Wendy's lowtops.

Williams does an incredible job of letting us inside Wendy's head even in her many dialogue-free scenes. Sporting a pageboy haircut that reminds of Scout Finch, wide-eyed and costumed in almost gender-neutral clothes, Williams gives Wendy an almost preadolescent innocence that makes sense of Wendy's disconnect from those around her (in a way, the film is an overdue coming-of-age story). Reichardt uses the rural Oregon setting to illustrate how most of the country has become unliveable for sub- or countercultural ways of life. A teenage cashier (John Robinson) with a cross around his neck changes Wendy's life forever thanks to his unshakable allegiance to "store policy," while a Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton) offers Wendy what help he can and uses his sense of humor to find peace with the many irrationalities of modern life; the cashier and the guard are two sides of the same coin, one proudly and the other ironically "playing the game" in a way that Wendy herself cannot. At the same time, Wendy can't relate to the gutter punks she meets along the way and is one of. Perhaps it's this total lack of connection that led Film Freak Central's Ian Pugh to label Wendy and Lucy "the navel-gazing ramblings of a misanthropic Luddite." But I don't think Reichardt is trying to say that human connection is impossible, and it's Williams who lets us know, one small gesture at a time, that perhaps Wendy doesn't even understand what is driving her further and further away.

Wendy and Lucy ultimately hinges on a choice that is bound to tear any dog lover apart. I'm usually reluctant to praise one movie by putting down another, but Wendy and Lucy is in many ways the anti-Marley and Me. In that movie (I assume, and could be wrong), having a pet is shorthand for a comfortable domestic existence. Wendy and Lucy's relationship is more complicated; Wendy clearly has affection for her dog but also seems to rely on the false sense of protection the dog gives her. It's suggested that Wendy takes more from Lucy than she is able to give - as one character rather harshly points out, maybe she shouldn't have a dog if she can't take care of it. And though the movie doesn't end with Wendy, shotgun in hand, taking Lucy behind the woodshed, there is the sense that the change in their relationship has seismic implications for where Wendy is headed, even if we know as little about where she'll end up as we do about where she's been.

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