A soul-searching road trip sung in all-but silent hope and despair. Beautiful.
While the canon of films featuring dogs as co-stars aren’t exactly sterling, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, her first of three collaborations with Michelle Williams, is a shining exception.
Thoroughly adult cinema painted in oft-unspoken emotion and set against the beautiful but harsh backdrop of the Pacific Northwest in oncoming winter, its release in 2008 seems, in retrospect, like a premonition of America’s collapse in the tailwinds of the GFC.
Showing as part of ACMI’s Certain Women: Kelly Reichardt’s America season, Williams puts in a bravura performance as Wendy, sleeping in her run-down car with loyal pup Lucy by her side as they make for the promise of work in Alaska that already feels tenuous at best.
Drawn from a short story by Jonathan Raymond, on co-scripting duties with Reichardt again following Old Joy, there is no grand drama at play and yet there’s crushing tragedy all the same. Tension is set in an opening scene that sees Wendy alone in the woods as night falls, looking for a lost Lucy in an early sign of trying times to come. The pooch is discovered hanging with some homeless friends around a campfire by the railway lines, in a scene that fraternises with menace instead plays with expectation and hints at the vagabond life ahead.
Reunified, alas this odyssey is ill fated nonetheless. There are precious few spoken encounters, but all have their own aching import. There’s the callous cruelty of a supermarket kid (John Robinson) who unbendingly insists his more forgiving manger punish Wendy for the crime of stealing one can of dog food despite clearly starving herself to the security guard, and then salts the wound with the stinging, “if a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog.”
This instigates a terrible spiral of debt and disaster that leads to another hunt for the rope-tied and now vanished Lucy that will see the film through to its aching end at only 80 minutes short.
There are some glimmers of hope, from the gentle sympathy of a security guard (Walter Dalton) who at first moves Wendy on from the parking lot but then makes her hopeless quest his business, but Will Paton’s distracted garage mechanic comes bearing bad news.
Williams and Reichardt together are a magnificent force for intelligent, character-driven storytelling that seems like the lightest touch until it’s not, with the one true moment of male-driven terror giving way to something far more awful in Wendy’s personal travails. A lithe beast edited by Reichardt herself and shot sparingly by Sam Levy, Wendy and Lucy is a masterclass in economic filmmaking that matters, with its final choice unforgettable.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords
Book tickets for Wendy and Lucy at ACMI here.