I’ve seen two Kelly Reichardt films: “Certain Women,” which I saw at the 54th NYFF, and just recently “Wendy and Lucy.” A press conference attended by Reichardt and the stars of the film followed the screening of “Certain Women” and one particular moment now stands out to me. A member of the audience had analyzed Reichardt as a director who focuses on the quotidian to which Reichardt had a good laugh at and continued to make jokes about all throughout the conference. Another similar remark heard throughout the festival was that Reichardt was a “quiet” filmmaker. Now admittedly, I initially disliked “Certain Women.” I thought the film to be quite dull to the point of being a dud. Despite my dislike for “Certain Women,” however, I found myself thinking about the film constantly—it had stayed with me in a way that only films I really enjoy do. It was during my viewing of “Wendy and Lucy” that I realized why “Certain Women” managed to arrest me in the way it did and perhaps why Reichardt laughed at the “quotidian” remark.
I think to call Reichardt’s films “quiet” or to call Reichardt’s style as focusing on the quotidian would be to fail to grasp at the deeper implications of her work. My experience of watching a Reichardt film recalls Hollis Frampton’s experimental short film, “Lemon.” In “Lemon,” Frampton displays a lemon and for seven minutes holds one frontal shot of the fruit. In those seven minutes, a gradual change comes over the lemon as Frampton slowly brings it into light out of the darkness. The change in lighting and the lemon’s change in appearance is slow and subtle; “subtle” being the keyword here. Reichardt’s style emanates the extreme subtly of Frampton’s “Lemon.”
In “Wendy and Lucy,” Reichardt’s subtly can be seen in her inclusion of down-trodden, poor characters throughout the film and ultimately the film’s documentary-like narrative on the 2008 American recession—an event that left many people unemployed. Reichardt’s film doesn’t discuss the recession but given the fact that “Wendy and Lucy” was released in 2008 and Reichardt’s focus on the unemployed, as an American viewer watching an American film, the 2008 recession springs to my mind. I called Reichardt subtle earlier, so how exactly does that subtly work in “Wendy and Lucy?” It doesn’t work through quotidian gestures and activities. The subtly of “Wendy and Lucy” lies in the actions and consequences of the film’s character, specifically in Wendy (Michelle Williams). Through Wendy and what happens to her, “Wendy and Lucy” becomes about the measures the unemployed may need to take, and the ensuing punishment when those measures are illegal.
Wendy is a drifter travelling to Alaska in search of work. She is accompanied by her faithful companion, her dog Lucy. On a limited budget of only $500, Wendy decides to shoplift dogfood, but her endeavor proves to be unsuccessful. Consequently thrown in prison, Wendy spends the entire day in anguish—Lucy remains outside of the grocery store, waiting for her. Once released, Wendy runs straight back to where she left Lucy only to find her missing. The story then revolves around Wendy’s search for her dog.
Despite the well-intentioned motivation for Wendy’s thievery, Reichardt doesn’t seem to be against the system, i.e., the law, greater authorities, etc. Despite her initial lies and plea bargain, the stock-boy who catches Wendy tells her that she committed a crime and that she must be punished accordingly. That punishment separates Wendy from Lucy, the first consequence of being poor. The second comes in the form of a psychological attack. Wendy’s car—which doubled as a place to sleep—breaks down and so she takes it to a shop. But, because the car needs to be worked on, Wendy must find somewhere else to sleep, and she chooses the nearby wooded hills. While sleeping there, another drifter finds her. He eyes her sexually and then threatens her not to look at him. Standing over her, the drifter delivers an angry monologue about the state of his situation as a poor person, and the uncaring nature of the town below. He then leaves her.
The disgruntled drifter embodies my analysis of the film. Reichardt places a focus on the unfairness of life when you’re poor and forced into certain situations resulting from that poverty. Wendy attempts to steal something and consequently loses. Her car must be repaired, and in handing her vehicle over, she loses a safe space. Through the drifter’s own monologue it can be inferred of course that he himself has also gone through a number of hardships. Wendy and the drifter aren’t the only two, however. The film opens up with Wendy stumbling upon a group of bohemian drifters in search of work themselves. Similarly, Wendy befriends a Walgreen’s security guard who tells her that he also doesn’t have much money to his own name, perhaps best embodied by a gesture in which he gives Wendy money and tells her to keep it a secret, consequently leading the audience to think it must be a lot of money. Wendy unfurls the bill revealing only six dollars. The security guard’s gesture of goodwill isn’t made any less noble by the amount of money he gives but rather highlights the film’s overarching inclusion of people who are struggling to make ends meet. Watching “Wendy and Lucy,” one gets the feeling that Reichardt is an extremely patient person. Her films unveil themselves slowly revealing an intricate world beneath. She is a painter capturing the Sun at just the right time.