Setting an Example
When we made the film, our first thought was we’re going to make a film about the economy. But that was before things were even this bad. But it was post-Katrina, and it was in the middle of this ever-present divide of feeling just the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and some of the response from Katrina of just, “You should have never let yourself be that vulnerable in the first place.”
—Kelly Reichardt, 2008
Wendy (Michelle Williams) walks with her dog Lucy, the camera tracking from a distance. She throws a stick, Lucy brings it back, and they enjoy the sunny, easy motion of a day in rural Oregon. When Lucy rushes ahead, Wendy follows, calling: “Loo,” she calls out, her voice high and musical. Finding her at last, Wendy waits and watches though tree branches: the dog has made new friends, a group of homeless-looking kids who pet her and coo around a campfire. Feeling assured by their friendliness, Wendy steps forward, identifying the dog as hers, and they welcome her, the firelight dancing over their smudged faces, pierced lips, and tattoos. After she explains that she’s on her way to Ketchikan, Alaska in search of work, the campers smile, one of them (Will Oldham) named Icky and especially eager to share the story of his own happy, if brief, employment at an Alaskan construction site.
The scene cuts here to Wendy’s crossed-out calculations in a notebook and carefully counted 20s and singles, which she stores flat in a pouch around her waist: Wendy has plans, you gather, hoping for a fresh start in a place where, she tells another new acquaintance later, “they need people.” Her story doesn’t so much begin at this point in Wendy and Lucy as it picks up. Kelly Reichardt’s movie, based on Jon Raymond’s short story “Train Choir,” observes her efforts to keep moving despite assorted, persistent obstacles. Though she never specifies how she’s come to her particular state, Wendy has lost everything—save for her dog and her 1988 Honda. Putting away her notebook, Wendy looks on Lucy asleep in the car beside her. She murmurs, gently, “Baby girl,” as the camera cuts to a long shot from overhead, the car small and alone in a Walgreens parking lot. The next morning, pigeons gather on telephone wires and trains rumble along the nearby train tracks. Awakened by a loud knock on her window, Wendy looks weary, startled, then resigned: the store’s security guard (Walter Dalton) leans toward her window, reciting what you know he will: “You can’t sleep here,” he says gently, “You can’t park here, that’s the rules.”
At this point, Wendy’s movement stops. When the car won’t start, the guard helps her to push across the street, where it sits within sight of a garage that’s closed. One frustration leads to another: when her attempt to collect bottles along the roadside yields little, she tries stealing a can of dog food from a local grocery store. As the film doesn’t show her theft, you’re caught by surprise, as Wendy appears to be, when a self-righteous, after-school-looking clerk (John Robinson) stops her outside the door, dragging her inside to face his manager. “If a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog!” he pronounces, the culprit’s face falling. The kid insists she be used to “set an example.” Wendy sighs, “I’m not from around here, sir, I can’t set an example.” No matter: riding way in a local cop’s cruiser, she looks back out the window at Lucy, whimpering and tied to a bike rack outside the store.
Wendy’s waiting—that is, her literal lack of motion—indicates her shrinking horizon. At the police station, close-ups show her cheeks flushed, her eyes focused on the wall clock; on the bus riding back to the parking lot hours later, Wendy looks literally pressed against the window; and at last, back at the parking lot, she gasps at Lucy’s absence, the camera cutting to the empty bike rack and a car rolling across the screen, oblivious to her loss.
Without her dog, Wendy is bereft, but willfully practical: she makes her way to the pound, where she walks past cages holding sad, anxious, barking dogs. She fills out forms, promises to call regularly, frets. Shot through a storefront window as she uses a pay phone to call her sister back in Muncie. Wendy is bathed in greenish light, set off by abstract reflections. After a short-lived effort to sound fine, she gives in: “It’s kinda bad here actually,” she tells her brother-in-law, “Lucy’s lost.” When the sister gets on the line, she won’t even talk to Wendy, but only makes her displeasure known to her husband: “What does she want us to do about it?” she asks. “We can’t do anything. We’re strapped.”
Lost and strapped herself, Wendy sets about the motions of her recovery. She finds the garage open at last, where the mechanic (Will Patton), placing racetrack bets by phone, never comes out from behind his counter. She papers the neighborhood with Xeroxed flyers showing Lucy’s picture and a caption, “I’m lost!” and she spends a frightening night in the park, dogless and carless, accosted by a dark shadow of a wanderer (Larry Fesenden) more interested in her meager effects than her body. When he instructs her not to look at him, the camera cuts between her eyes, fixed on nothing, and his looming form, a noisy ruckus of yearning and frustration: “I’m just trying to be a good boy,” he remonstrates, “They won’t let me, they treat me like trash, like I ain’t got no rights, they can smell the weakness on you.”
Surviving such traumas, Wendy serves as both detailed portrait and metaphorical expanse. Her pain is specific but also vague, her loss exact and all-encompassing. As she gathers herself together, again and again, Wendy manifests an essential dignity and perseverance, holding onto rituals that help us all feel sound (each morning she brushes her teeth and scrubs her face in a gas station bathroom, shifts the money belt that wraps round her thin torso like a constraint). Though she’s buoyed by small acts of kindness (in particular, by the Walgreens guard, who begins to seem like a hulky angel), Wendy is undone by losing Lucy, sign of herself and repository for all her own kindness and faith (she leaves pieces of her clothing near points along their most recent route, hoping Lucy will return to a familiar scent). Losing Lucy gives Wendy an uncertain focus and provokes unanswerable questions, about the relationship between morality and poverty, immobility and grief, as well as possibility and, most hopefully, movement.