After working on small films for more than a decade, Kelly Reichardt has awakened to find herself a hero to an American indie scene in need of one.
With her latest two films, Old Joy and the recent Wendy and Lucy, she has firmly stamped the American cinema with her own distinct voice and style. I’ll tentatively call it “plotless films in well-forested places.” As Hollywood still sees women as shopaholics in need of confession, Wendy and Lucy places its heroine at the center of a hobo movie, a story of a gentle drifter hanging on at the edges of American society.
While maintaining her stripped down vision, Reichardt does indulge in a name actress – Michelle Williams, hidden under a dark flop of hair. The role of Wendy is far from glamorous work, because, like the film, it only offers so much overt expression. The opening long, distant tracking shot immediately defines the film’s shy style. It follows Wendy and her dog Lucy humming gently through the woods, laying out the film’s casual, minimalist way.
Old Joy pictured a shifting male friendship on a camping trip. Apparently thinking that was too plot-heavy, Reichardt makes a sparser film. The elfin Wendy lives in her 1988 Honda Accord and a blue hoodie sweatshirt. She’s going to Alaska to find work in the canneries. Her car breaks down somewhere in Oregon. She loses her dog Lucy. She walks around looking for her. Sometimes she yells her dog’s name. She talks a little with a kind Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton). Then she walks some more. There’s more walking in this film’s compact body than Lawrence of Arabia. The cynic might say that Wendy and Lucy is 80 minutes of walking toward one emotional payoff.
There’s a plate-spinning attraction to all of this. How long can Reichardt keep this up without someone needing to pull a gun, or something? It almost feels like a dare. I understand and appreciate the desire to get as far away as possible from Hollywood glitz and mythmaking. I admire Reichardt’s mostly successful desire to tell it like it is. But is it truly realism, or, at times, does it risk a reactive indie cinema with its own tropes and cliche?
The film has vaulted Reichardt to the title of queen of minimalist micro-moviemaking. And yet I wonder whether her style is a sentence to permanent obscurity. (What was it once said about indie rockers, that they all want to sell 1 million records to 50,000 people?) Is she the filmmaking equivalent of the modern artist who places a black dot on a white canvas and calls it a portrait of alienation?
She is definitely an iconoclast. But is she truly a visionary? I don’t think we know the answer. It should be interesting to discover the answer in the years to come.