Apr 30, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (2008): A+

A true enjoyment/appreciation of Wendy and Lucy hinges on a few simple and effective factors, one such being the recognition that sometimes there’s nothing more exciting or memorable than a walk in the woods, or a night spent round a campfire with fellows. If you can’t dig this kind of lived-in simplicity, which bears with it the fact that no exciting sound bytes could possibly be devised with serious and honest intent for the film in question, then don’t even bother. Not so much pitched minimally as it is a kind of ne plus ultra of the quotidian, Reichardt’s follow-up to Old Joy replaces a wandering sense of sublime existentialism with a rigid, stripped-down character study that, in theory, borders on formulaic (but nothing more). Putting to the test Ebert’s much stressed “how/about” designation, it is a film more concerned with the manners and purposes of things than the whats and hows. Suggesting the essential mirror to a made-for-June-release ‘splode fest, Wendy and Lucy is practically introverted. You have to want to know more about it.

It is in this unspoken manner that the film’s oft-referenced political nods are imbued into its fabric, unlike the NPR vocal choir that overshadowed everything in Old Joy. The world sings here, though, such as the chorus of freight trains that decorate the opening credits (the title, green on plain black, appears only at the beginning of the third scene during a low point in the action, as it were), or the manner in which sound is used for emotional emphasis or to indicate the passage of time. Time is all that Wendy has in abundance, and as the details of her situation (unemployed and with few resources, on the road, and, save for her dog Lucy, not a friend in the world) reveal themselves in gradual happenstance, her situation becomes exponentially more heartbreaking in impact, strung out in meticulous perfection like the wire of a spider’s web. Surely this is not cinematic escape, but no one can deny that some of life’s most nerve wracking moments are also some of its most banal and tedious. Reichardt’s focus brings the small and the specific into the light of the universal.

Much of Wendy and Lucy can be physically/visually described as static or slow-moving, a fact that makes its razor-sharp shot length control even more impressive to behold. Captured with a series of deliberately, effortlessly constructed compositions (literally about small things but assembled with epic emotions in mind), Reichardt’s masterpiece details her experiences with a stately sensitivity, first suggested via the early, instant classic field sequence, which functions both as a literal series of paintings, each framed by foliage and wild shrubbery, and - as film critic Christopher Long aptly notes - an emotional decompression chamber, tenderizing the viewer for what is to come.

That I wanted, but neglected, to further address the film’s politics in my previous paragraphs is indicative of their relative importance therein: Wendy and Lucy lives in the shadow or governmental inadequacy (or failure), but stays firmly on ground level with those suffering from the cracks in the system. We know this, rather simply, because Wendy isn’t dumb, as is made clear time and again throughout, though often indirectly or, to restate a point, silently. Case in point: Wendy stares in disbelief beneath the hood of her car (the engine won’t start), but it isn’t until she speaks to a mechanic much later that we learn she’s largely correct about what’s afflicting it). Many an IMDb commenter (those people ready to latch onto any loophole or flaw present within a single plain of thought) have brought up a single point: why didn’t Wendy simply buy a plane ticket to Alaska, rather than spend her savings on a cross-country trip? Unlike economic theory, Wendy and Lucy accommodates those with less than perfect judgment, and in the same manner, it won’t necessarily tell you straight up if someone’s afraid of flying (or how well or not they’re versed in the art of car repair).

In casting Michelle Williams as a comedown from razzle-dazzle glamour, Reichardt effectively turns Wendy and Lucy into a modern day Snow White, with the audience posing as magic mirror. Unconcerned with people beyond their behavior (jobs, labels and status come off here as part of a superficial charade), the film flattens the social paradigm to see homeless, police, employees, and dogs as equals, an open-to-all attitude carefully regulated by the selection of performers and institution of particular character traits. I’ve long hated hyperbole but these revelations of her performance demand close to it: Michelle Williams may give the finest female performance since Emily Watson’s overseen work in Breaking the Waves. She’s a falling angel, enshrined before impact by barely glimpsed fluorescent lights above her halo-like bowl cut; Williams’ barely-glimpsed reserve gives us a character about whom we can know so much, even if we know very little (to say nothing of the cast at large, particularly Will Patton and a memorable cameo by Will Oldham). Wendy and Lucy gets under your nails, which is to say, it’s the stuff of life.


That Wendy and Lucy was shot to look about as texturally laid back as Transformers was unbelievably polished (I’m still unsure if that’s really a bad thing or not) doesn’t exactly make this a title begging for Blu-ray treatment. As such, this transfer gets the job done beautifully, particularly in the shadowy depth of the film's nighttime scenes. Equally modest is the sound mix, which works wonders as an example of almost unnoticeably subtle use of background noise (but packs almost as much of a wallop as No Country for Old Men). No movie-related features save for the trailer, although this is a fact I’m personally grateful for given the contemplative nature of the film. Far more interesting than Reichardt explaining the magic of her work are four short films selected by the director, made by her colleagues at Bard college. Previews for eleven more Oscilloscope releases highlight the far-reaching, independently-spirited integrity of this laudable new studio’s offerings.


  1. Hey Rob, nice to see you write a piece of length filled with analysis. A sign of things to come? =)

    You do it well, though I thought you said that you ditched the Shermometer? Your writing stands up-fine and conveys your feelings effectively without the stamped letter grade. What is this, fucking high school or film criticism? =P

  2. Anonymous2:06 AM

    this movie was terrrible...more evidnece that the word makes the market...one hipster says its 'deep' and artistic and....so it is...because people cant think for themselves they just agree.

    art does not equal boring....boring is not art.

    american movies that imitate european film asthetic is not creative but sad tripe.

    the fact that this passes for art is yet another sign that the fall of westren civilization is at hand.

    fucking pathetic movie, and fucking pathetic that anybody thinks this is 'artistic'...

    the cinematography was good though...i will give it that.

  3. Ahh, the old "European art films" argument. Man, that never gets old.

    Fucking pathetic that anyone could think that was something even vaguely resembling an argument, or a point, even.