Kelly Reichardt's latest ode to the Pacific northwest, Wendy and Lucy, much like the filmmaker's previous work, Old Joy, is a veritable paean to the disenfranchised of America. To all those who are eaten up by the system and who never, for whatever reason (and none is ever given here) become what society expects them to be. To those on the fringe of America. Outcasts and throw-aways. Not bad people. Not lesser people. Simply people who do not know where they belong, where they fit in. This film, like Old Joy is a sad love song of sorts, sung to those for whom the idea of the American dream simply does not exist.
It is one of these wayward "untouchables", a young woman named Wendy, who we follow along her path of disillusionment. With the most grotesque and quite perverse curiosity, like watching a strange exotic animal in a zoo, never daring to think, there but for the grace of God go I, we watch. We watch as she meticulously, and quite methodically, keeps track of every cent she spends in a pocket notebook, only to see it all be for naught once her car, the very thing she has been living in for God knows how long, breaks down and she becomes trapped once again by society. We watch as Wendy is nabbed for shoplifting by a strangely overzealous stock boy and in the process of being arrested and booked, loses the one thing that means more to her than her car, her faithful companion, her dog Lucy. We watch as this lost little girl searches for her Lucy in what seems like such an overpowering, suffocating world full of profiteering auto mechanics and bureaucratic red tape - as well as one of the most harrowing dog pound scenes I have ever seen (this critic had a hard time making it through as those sadly hopeful eyes peered out at us from behind their chainlinked cages). The very society from which Wendy is supposedly making her escape is the very society that has again ensnared her within its web. Though we may feel like voyeurs at first, like ravenous vultures impatiently awaiting their inevitable carcass, in time, Reichardt's film ensnares us within its web as well, and we to are trapped.
Where Old Joy kept a rather safe distance from its audience, almost as if viewing a sad but mesmerizingly intricate impressionist painting within the relatively safe confines of an art museum, Wendy and Lucy, much in the vein of the expressionist school, becomes all the more personal and up close. Where we merely sat back and absorbed the oft-silent chirpings of Will Oldham's Kurt in Old Joy, we are pulled in as close as we can get, and are forced to get, to Michelle Williams' brilliant turn as Wendy - almost as if we ourselves are an actual participant in her bitter, lonely reality. Where Kurt was lonely and lost, his hapless hippie throwback is seen in an almost comical way at times - the sad clown so to speak, easy to stay detached from - Wendy seems all the more real and therefore all the more terrifying to behold. And it is the bravura performance of teen TV star turned alternative actress par excellence Williams that captures this terrifying emptiness, this desperation as it were, and makes it such an intimate connective to the audience, whether we want it or not. Remember, there but for the grace of God, go we.
Though filmed with the sublime picturesque, and quite auteuristic eye of Ms. Reichardt (no one in American cinema today does better the haunting melancholy of the disembodied outdoors than Kelly Reichardt), this film is tripled, quadrupled, quintupled even, in blatant puissance by the subtly explosion-precipiced performance of the Oscar nominated former Dawson's Creek star. An actress who over the past few years, in films ranging from The Station Agent, Land of Plenty, Brokeback Mountain, The Hawk is Dying, I'm Not There and Charlie Kaufman's current mindfuck, Synecdoche, New York, has become the veritable darling of American independent cinema. It is Williams' ascendancy to this preeminence, her Vormachtstellung if you will, that takes an already exceptional film and raises it to a whole other realm completely. For Williams gives the most heartwrenching performance by any actor, male or female, since, ironically enough, her former love and father of her child, the late Heath Ledger handed in the performance of his sadly shortened lifetime in Brokeback Mountain near three years ago.
The final scene, wherein Wendy is forced to make a decision that will seriously impact two lives, though rather obvious in its forthcoming, is still quite more than enough to tear a person to pieces. To leave them a shattered, withering husk on the figurative theater floor. The scene, emotionally speaking, is much like Ledger's own heart-breaking epic closure to Brokeback. This is the power of Reichardt's film and this is the power of Williams' performance. [12/17/08]