Kelly Reichardt is one of the most understated American filmmakers working today, but she is also one of the very best. There’s always something more beautiful within the quietness of her movies that ends up making them so much bigger than what they look like – and that brings me to Wendy and Lucy. Right here is the sort of movie that doesn’t need more than what it already has to show how life is as hard as it is, because of how much it draws from the experience of the title characters – struggling to even find themselves living a lifestyle that can support either of them, it works almost like an Italian neorealist picture would. It feels almost like a perfect reminder that sometimes quietness is what speaks more than enough about the state of one’s life, and what Kelly Reichardt manages to achieve in Wendy and Lucy is a film that builds itself around Wendy’s own ambition while recognizing her limits and thus comes by one of the most heartbreaking films of the 21st century, maybe even Reichardt’s masterpiece.
Wendy is a vagrant travelling to Alaska in search of work – there is nothing more about herself that we need to know than just that. The only companion that she has is none other than her dog Lucy, who she is even struggling to care for because she has already lost everything on her own hands. As she attempts to shoplift dog food, she gets arrested and finds that the dog is missing, thus beginning a frantic search for her companion. This is a film that is built upon vague detail, but Reichardt uses it to her own advantage because of how it reflects the reality in which she is living. It reflects the loss of a direction in life that comes by Wendy’s own way, being homeless individual and giving oneself a sense of the hopelessness to which she is forced to live through. Through the most vague strokes, what Reichardt creates is a sense of bleakness that is only bound to follow her characters and their own worlds but the empathy that she has for Wendy’s experience is what makes for a shattering work.
It feels so shattering in the sense that this is a film that is made almost within the same sort of space that Wendy is living, and this film never really needs more than that in order to get you to become a part of the experience. But what it is that makes Reichardt’s direction stand out especially in this aspect is the fact that it’s a film that is so visually reflective of Wendy’s isolation from her world. Everything that she once had is gone from her, with only her dog Lucy keeping her company, and she lives a life in the shadows. From moments in which you see it is all done in darkness compared to everything else, you already feel how scared she is for her own future. In horror movies, you already would feel darkness as being indicative of how trapped its characters feel within the spaces that they occupy, and Reichardt employs something similar here in order to create what feels like a horror movie by the experiences of Wendy. This film is shot in such a way that you get the idea that Wendy cannot rely on anyone else in order to survive – let alone provide her with the shelter that she needs in order to live a normal life. Even in moments that appear small, such as a security guard offering her money, end up becoming more depressing because they present a clear outlook about what the world makes of her, a homeless woman who simply just wants to survive.
Michelle Williams is at her very best as Wendy, but what makes this performance as stunning as it is comes from how much of it is drawn by her own surroundings. It’s a performance which, like said surroundings, is so overwhelmed by heartbreak and doesn’t want to live through it ever again whereas Wendy is trapped there. You recognize it as being what people can recognize as a way of life, but it always shuts out others as a result. This is a performance that comes straight from her own environment and thus even a moment so small carries so much more energy out of the circumstances that Wendy lives under. And yet perhaps the most beautiful part about watching Michelle Williams’s performance here is the feeling of empowerment on her own journey to fid the companion that has kept her happy especially during a time of hardship. You already feel the closeness within the bond that Wendy and Lucy share with one another, because Lucy is the one thing that keeps Wendy happy. But even as things don’t work in their favour, you still feel that bond growing stronger and thus the results are made all the more heartbreaking.
The one thing that I love most about Wendy and Lucy is that a simple narrative ends up amplifying something of a much greater scope – because in the world that Wendy lives within, she is looked down upon by other males and it was all for the reason that she wanted to provide for her dog. There’s always that feeling of helplessness lingering throughout Wendy and Lucy but Reichardt doesn’t need more than what she has in order to capture that very feeling, because it’s all told in front of your eyes the way it is. It’s easy enough to admire a filmmaker like Kelly Reichardt for her own subtlety, because it gives you, as the viewer, the feeling that you are living within the moment. You’re placed within a circumstance where you know everything is closing in on Wendy and Lucy as they are merely trying to find a state of life that will accommodate their own means to survive – because it already leaves you with the very feeling that this could so easily happen to just about anyone. The simplicity is enough to reflect the reality of Wendy’s life, but it’s Reichardt’s direction that already elevates this film to becoming something truly special.
Wendy and Lucy is almost like a mirror of real life, because reality is directionless – especially at the point when you know you have lost everything that makes you the person that you are. In the very simplicity of the film’s premise, what you can already feel is something so uneasy, because it leaves you trapped – which is the feeling that Wendy is left within, merely for struggling even to survive. But in the case of Wendy and Lucy, it’s all that you even really need in order to get a picture of what it is that she is feeling. With a running time of only 80 minutes, what Kelly Reichardt manages to create out of a film that feels aimless, many other filmmakers wouldn’t be able to accomplish with a narrative that already has a set path for itself. It’s stunning just how heartbreaking every moment that Wendy shares with her dog Lucy is, but you’re always so unsure of what is set to come her way because the mere search for survival has become everything that Wendy needs. To say that this is one of the best films of the 21st century would be understating it, because it truly is one of the most empathetic experiences ever crafted in that regard.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Oscilloscope Pictures.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay by Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, from Train Choir by Raymond
Produced by Larry Fessenden, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani
Starring Michelle Williams
Release Year: 2008
Running Time: 80 minutes