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Review: Wendy and Lucy

It's a dog's life
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 20, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy | Directed by Kelly Reichardt | Written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from Raymond’s short story | with Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Will Oldham, John Robinson, Wally Dalton, Larry Fessenden, and Lucy | Oscilloscope Laboratories | 80 minutes

Interview: Kelly Reichardt on Wendy and Lucy. By Peter Keough.

Nothing underscores the injustice of the universe like a loyal animal. Vittorio de Sica demonstrated this in Umberto D (1952); Robert Bresson confirmed it in Balthazar (1966). Kelly Reichardt might not rank with those masters, but Wendy and Lucy jerks its share of tears, without apology. Minimal in budget, style, and narrative, her film strips down the plight of the innocent and disenfranchised to its essential pathos.

Played by Michelle Williams, who resembles True Grit's Kim Darby with her chopped-off locks and a K-Mart wardrobe that looks as if she'd she slept in it, Wendy has problems from the get-go. A security guard (Wally Dalton) wakes her up while she's sleeping in her car along with her faithful mutt, Lucy (played by Reichardt's own Lucy, who won the "Palm Dog" last year at Cannes). Reluctantly, it seems, he tells her she's got to move it.

Since luck seldom favors the destitute, the car won't start. Not only that, but Lucy's food has run out — not to mention Wendy's. Wendy heads down to the local supermarket, shoplifts a couple of cans of dog food, and gets caught. She's taken to a police station and pays a fine with her diminishing cash; returning after a couple of hours, she discovers that Lucy, whom she left tied up outside the store, is gone.

Seems that plan of heading to Alaska to make some money working a summer job at a salmon cannery may have to wait a while. No surprise that Wendy's efforts to find Lucy and get her car fixed meet with little success. But the predictability doesn't make her ordeal and her doggedness and desperation in dealing with it any less compelling.

Reichardt resorts to a stark style that owes more to Jim Jarmusch than to Bresson or the Neo-Realists. She shoots in long takes and intercuts cold images of the Portland (Oregon) location — railroad yards, pigeons lined up on a telephone wire, beat-up storefronts — with extended close-ups of Williams's face. The latter's acting is as minimal as the direction; she seldom allows glimpses of her misery and bewilderment to poke through her façade of numb perseverance. Will she ever break down and cry? Her refusal to do so is more wrenching than any tears might be.

Even minimalism can, of course, be excessive, giving a shorthand of stereotype and clichû and rhetorical overkill in lieu of the raw stuff of life. Wendy already has a bad haircut and grubby clothes; does she need to pick at a ratty bandage on her ankle? We know the snotty store clerk who turns her in is a self-righteous prig ("If a person can't afford dog food, they shouldn't have a dog"); does he need to have a crucifix around his neck?

Reichardt serves her cause best when she forgoes the melodrama and focuses on the humanity, as well as the inhumanity, of the situation. As when the crotchety old guard, who looks as if he might know what it's like to sleep in a car, offers Wendy a few bucks from his wallet. Or when her fellow indigents offer cheery if useless advice while gathered by a fire at a hobo camp or waiting in line at a recycling center. The most important part, at least, the director gets right: Lucy enters the pantheon of cinema's noble beasts.

Related: Interview: Kelly Reichardt, Anti-depressant cinema, Review: Waltz With Bashir, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Jim Jarmusch, John Robinson,  More more >
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