The story goes, asked why undertake an arduous voyage into the unknown, a settler on the Oregon Trail offered a general motive for travel: to get where you ain’t. Travel offers the illusion of escape, and sometimes the real thing—depends on whether what’s dogging you can be left behind. One takes to the trail, the road, the rails, to make friends or to lose them—to flee the past, or seek a future, any future.
That settler could have appeared in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010). The protagonist of Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) is more abject. Her destination is less real to her than the Oregon Territory was to that settler. About Alaska, she tells the person she talks to most in the film, “I hear they need people up there.” To mistake this admission—desolating in its irony—as a simple wish for employment is to underestimate the consuming void she does not know how to fill. She loses her beloved dog Lucy, and ultimately accepts her loss as necessary. So profound is Wendy’s determination to lose that, by the end of the film, one might wonder if she still acknowledges her place in that group to which she has no choice whether she belongs: the species.
They say you can be lonely in a crowd. To feel so, you have to be able to bear others. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) cannot. Not long after the film begins, Lucy runs off. After an anxious afternoon of looking, calling, she discovers her beloved in the company of a group now much more common, or at least more visible. Various in luck, education, and motivation, one wonders what to call them. We see the bearded, pierced faces lit from below before we hear their loose talk. Wendy must extract Lucy from this crowd, yet she will not join their fire circle. Reluctant to reveal anything about herself, like a POW in a prison picture, Wendy offers the minimum: the name of her dog, and their destination. Learning she is bound for Alaska to work in the dangerous, lucrative fishing industry—possibly at Ketchikan—Icky (Will Oldham), an intoxicated mansplainer, can’t resist dropping names of fishing business honchos before regaling the intoxicated crowd with a story they have all likely heard before. He lost control of an earth-mover he had no business operating. This kind of mistake might mark a life as indelibly as a tattoo. Yet the destruction of a hundred-thousand-dollar piece of equipment has done no more than to give him something to crow about, as well as to prove his profligacy and his contempt for the Man. If one is going to suffer their accidental or intentional destruction, one must value things in the first place. And it is not a judgment on him but on society to observe that, in a world where so many lives are not valued at all, nihilism flourishes.
The road movie genre is divisible into two general types. Those that move, looking either forward to the promises of the horizon or away from the disappointments of the past—and those that don’t, the promises of the road making two halves of the parenthesis, charging the moment of stasis with meaning it might not otherwise have. Wendy and Lucy takes place in one of these pauses. After Wendy extracts Lucy from the fire circle, they cocoon together in her Honda Accord. On a list itemizing the costs of their journey, from Indiana to Oregon, where the film is set, she writes in all-caps the name of the fishing company the mansplainer mentioned. Not because she trusts him, but because she lacks even basic information about where she’s going. Wendy is wayward, in flight, yet the film is too respectful to draw any conclusions about her decision, and too serious not to ignore the consequences of her decisions.
In Saul Steinberg’s iconic New Yorker cover, View of the World from 9th Avenue, the Hudson River marks the boundary between Manhattan and nowhere. The Willamette used to mark the same boundary for me. Looking east from the West Hills and downtown—really anywhere I once considered Portland—the next feature of significance, Mount Hood, dominated the horizon. Nothing east of the river until the ski slopes on Hood, or the other peaks one used to be able see on a clear day: Adams, Jefferson, and St. Helens, the latter’s profile changed irrevocably by the eruption on May 18, 1980 (I was playing tennis).
My view of my home city was altered, irrevocably, by my intermittent—then increasingly regular—work as a cab driver on the graveyard shift. I started driving in 2008, the year Wendy and Lucy was released. (It might have been late 2007 or early 2009; this was a painful period, the sequence of events hazy). Waiting in the windowless, smoke-filled lounge to be assigned a car (which one leases for the night), I eavesdropped while some veteran advised a driver he knew and liked better than me, and soon I was spending my early evenings far out of downtown. At the beginning of my shift—at four, five, six o’clock—many of my fares were going back into town to pursue some kind of night work; and as many were moving laterally, more north than south, for the same purpose: to pull a graveyard shift at a convenience store or in a warehouse, to tend bar or wait tables, to do something menial in a hotel. To escape rush-hour congestion, I cruised the long, multi-lane boulevards—and the narrow side streets with no sidewalks—of East Multnomah County, aka Felony Flats, or I’d head north on Lombard, one of the few streets mentioned by name in Wendy and Lucy. Here were superstores with enormous parking lots, the nested spaces painted on the acres of blacktop reminding me of the plots in an as-yet unoccupied cemetery; strip joints; fast food chains with busy drive-thrus; gas stations; small houses, some occupied by small businesses: tax preparation, fortune-telling, dentists. Lots of auto repair. I always considered my night auspicious if I picked up blood from the blood bank near Emanuel Medical Center, in Inner Northeast, and drove it out to a far-flung hospital in need. I would do these blood runs as a favor to the dispatcher, and was often rewarded with a dawn ride to the airport for my trouble.
The distances are long. This was the other secret that veteran driver shared with his mentee: driving in the outskirts, the average fare was above ten dollars. My fares were blowing an hour’s pay just to get to work, and every one of them tipped handsomely, sharing the scraps of a collapsed economy. Often in a hurry, they had missed the bus or, like Wendy, shunned public transit. Some, committed car people serving out license suspensions for DUI, made sure I knew they had never been on a city bus, and never would step through those flapping, hissing doors; some, briefly flush, wanted to arrive at their local bar in style. Once, I collected a drunk from a bar whose loose limbs were shoehorned, by a friend eager to be rid of him, into the backseat of my decommissioned police cruiser (minus the fiberglass separating back and front seats). Accustomed to humoring drunks, it took me a while to realize his frustration with my inability to follow his directions was real: he was directing me along streets in Toledo, Ohio. I took him back to his unhappy friend, who confided that his drunken buddy had moved to Portland from Toledo only 18 months before. I was not surprised; it wasn’t just the booze talking. Poking along in stop-and-go traffic on any elevated interstate, diving off an exit to escape that same river of brake lights in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Fargo, Pittsburgh, one overlooks or drives along a nearly uniform retail-ethnic-food-buyer’s-club topography.
On this first morning of three, parked in the lot of a Walgreens, the outside world comes for Wendy and her light-gold mutt. A security guard is tapping on the driver’s side window: “You can’t sleep here, ma’am.” Like McDonald’s, Burger King, CVS, Costco, Walmart, the links of these chains are designed to resemble each other, the resemblance meant to trigger needs in our brand-sensitized attention. In the franchise ideal, if you’ve seen one, you really have seen them all, which is probably why Wendy has chosen Walgreens: for its familiar anonymity. The security guard (Wally Dalton), who remains nameless, insists: “You can’t sleep here,” meaning in the parking lot. But Wendy’s car won’t start. Together they push it onto the nearest public street. I could swear it’s the same Walgreens lot, on the corner of César E. Chávez Blvd. and SE Belmont, where most nights I used to park my cab while waiting for the rush that starts around two o’clock in the morning, half an hour before the bars close. Then again, it may not be that Walgreens; their uniformity is the essence of the melancholy they provoke in the traveler. One wonders if one has gotten anywhere at all.
The lonely are not necessarily shy. Isolated for so long, Wendy has lost the capacity and the desire to be open to the small surprises of conversation. A transaction in the checkout line, with a functionary at the dog pound, or with the owner of an auto repair place—really, with anyone—can be intolerable to contemplate, and worse to endure. Wendy calculates the cost of everything, not just in dollars and cents, but in some intangible yet titratable element. Even inadvertent eye contact disturbs her precarious, frozen equilibrium; even small change can’t be spent—or undergone. Early on the first of three days in Portland, she discovers she is out of dog food, and so she collects cans in a park for the deposit. Standing in line waiting to have them crushed in the machine, she surrenders her meager collection to yet another mansplainer, this one in a wheelchair. Her gesture looks generous, but it is, as well, an admission of defeat. She goes to Jack’s, the supermarket the security guard recommends, to shoplift. Either she has not chosen well, or she has lost her light-fingered touch, or, just possibly, this is her first time—we don’t need to know. Just outside the sliding glass doors, bluff, blond Andy (John Robinson)—a self-righteous young employee—catches her by the arm, and the only witness is Lucy, tied to a bike rack a few feet in front of her.
For Wendy to be touched, addressed, rendered socially significant, is appalling. She feels Lucy’s helplessness so much more acutely than her own. Andy leads her back inside, into the back of the store. Wendy visits the dog pound once, is seen in coffee shops, twice stands before the mechanic in his shop, escapes into the locked privacy of a bathroom in the back of a Shell station three times—but it is here, in the manager’s cramped, wood-paneled office, that the only proper interior scene in the whole film takes place. Wendy sits where she has been sat, while Andy, standing, makes his principled case to the skeptical manager (John Breen) to prosecute her for shoplifting. Andy places Wendy’s take on Mr. Hunt’s desk: two cans of IAMS dog food. Wendy apologizes, and the manager appears open to letting her go, but Andy insists on her arrest, the scene over almost before it began. From the backseat of the police car, she stammers to the unseen cop about her dog, tied up outside the store. Before she can finish, the cop instructs, “Just relax.”
In the station, she is photographed, fingerprinted, the fingerprinting worse than the photographing because she must be touched again. She is taken out of her cell to be fingerprinted a second time. The technician (Deneb Catalan), another of the well-meaning functionaries appearing in the film, says: “This machine’s gonna kill me. We’ve got to do this again.” A routine hyperbolic apology from a person at the mercy of a malfunctioning machine, like almost all of us have been at one time or another. Yet this technician can have no idea how excruciating this ordeal is for the slight young woman whose fingers he holds. Holding them, rolling the tips onto the screen that captures her prints, he reduces her fingertips to something inanimate: evidence. A trace of her will remain here—and leaving no trace might be Wendy’s ambition.
Released late the same afternoon, she must fill out a form. Offscreen, from behind glass, we hear a voice say “$50.” After a brief back-and-forth, Wendy offers her reason for being: “I don’t live here. I’m just passing through.” The officer is polite: “If you get stopped in another state, you’re just gonna end up right back here,” a reminder that her prints form part of her record, and will exist forever in some database. As Wendy doesn’t respond, the voice adds, helpfully: “You could use a credit card.” “Cash,” Wendy says, surrendering. Insisting on her status does not alter how the locals view her. This is the risk for the traveler, the subtext of many a road movie. A stranger in town is a novelty—at least until they get caught stealing.
When Wendy is driven from the store in the police car, we know Lucy will not be there when she returns. Looking miserable, she rides the bus back from the jail to spend the late afternoon of this mild summer day walking around calling with anxious futility, “Lucy! Lucy!” At dusk, she is back where she started, behind Jack’s. She meets Andy leaving by the employee entrance, past the garbage cans and stacks of recycling. “What are you doing here?” he asks, smirking. “Looking for my dog,” she replies. Andy, a self-righteous twerp, the kind of person all of us have encountered at one time or another, is also someone’s son. Andy gets into a waiting Volvo, and Wendy shouts at the unseen driver, “You know, your son is a real hero!” Ironically, this is how Andy thinks of himself.
Before bedding down in her stalled Accord, she calls her sister back in Indiana. She speaks longer to her brother-in-law than to her sibling, who is suspicious, and this brief call seems the last attempt to reach back into her own past for contact or solace. In the morning, she finds the security guard, who offers some chirpy commiseration, directs her to the pound, and confirms that, yes, the nearby auto repair place is usually open. Pretty sure no dog matches Lucy’s description, the attendant invites Wendy to see for herself. The camera moves unobtrusively in this film. A tracking shot of Wendy’s POV shows the interior of each cage—none of them Lucy; cuts to a matching reverse shot that tracks at the same pace, showing Wendy’s face with a look of almost holy concentration; and finally cuts back again to the tracking shot of cages. This shot echoes the initial establishing shot of Wendy and Lucy walking together in a secluded glade. The pound is a sad place, and it is remarkable that this scene is not merely sad. Of many shapes, sizes, and demeanors, the dogs exhibit tolerance, resignation, and hopelessness regarding their incarceration. A few, in that utterly guileless poignant way of dogs, look to Wendy as if she might be their savior. It is banal and unbearable, and not simply because Wendy is unmoved by their plight: she only has eyes for Lucy. Lucy is her only attachment, her final commitment. She dutifully fills out the form. Admitting to the attendant that she has no local address or phone number, she repeats her hopeless truth: “I’m just passing through.”
The following morning, she has her first conversation with the owner of the auto shop. Unhurried, the mechanic (Will Patton) agrees to look at her car. She cannot talk him out of a towing fee, but he does knock the price down, not necessarily out of kindness. He needs work, too. She returns to the Walgreens and speaks to the security guard, who remains upbeat. Of the pound, he offers this ambiguous endorsement, “They always get their dog.” His first gesture of friendship, grand by the film’s standards, is to let her use his cellphone to call the pound. The two commiserate about the difficulties of getting a job without an address or a phone number. As if quoting scripture, the guard observes, “You can’t get an address without an address, you can’t get a job without a job.” Shaking his head, he adds, “It’s all fixed.” Now, Wendy recites her creed: “That’s why I’m going to Alaska. I hear they need people.” Then, the nameless guard, going further, extending himself, offers a sort of stability: he tells her she can leave his number as a contact number.
She spends this second day on two futile tasks, preparing a “Lost Dog” poster for Lucy, complete with the security guard’s phone number. Then, she proceeds to willfully misunderstand the guard’s story about how his father retrieved a hound lost on a hunting trip. The guard has told her: to retrieve a dog lost in a place it was unfamiliar with, his father would leave his jacket—pungent with his scent—where the dog was last seen, the dog would find its way back to the jacket, and his father would bring it home. Wendy begins sensibly, wrapping a pair of cutoffs around the bike rack Lucy was tied to when she disappeared. Then, the camera follows her as she wraps a garment around the base of a stop sign, and leaves another on a tree branch, dispersing her scarce possessions, as if Wendy’s scent might draw Lucy out of thin air.
With her car in the shop, she must sleep rough. The film is based on “Train Choir,” a short story by Jon Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Reichardt—and the opening credits appear over a rail yard. Wendy, seeming to take comfort in the heavy metallic sounds and the promise of the tracks, beds down just above them on cardboard she covers with a blanket that she also rolls up in. We can see her dimly, asleep, when we hear something or someone approaching. We can just make out rough hands emptying her bag, pawing her things. She wakes, and a face framed by stringy hair and lit from below—a face that would not have been out of place around the fire circle—begins a monologue. We then see her glance in fear toward the speaker, who responds, to the movement of her eyes, “Don’t look at me.” As he’s called in the credits, the Man in Park’s (Larry Fessenden) monologue is the mad, dark underside of the security guard’s daylight speech about the challenges of finding and keeping work. Eyes brimming with fear, Wendy shrinks as far into herself as she can; this man, another talker who means to be heard, might rape or kill her. Yet he’s not interested in her as an individual—she is merely an ear. Possibly a veteran of one of the Forever Wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) then in their middle years, probably hallucinating, his rant closes on these grim notes: “I mean, they gotta know I’ve killed more than 700 people with my bare hands. We lost, man. Fuck if I know.” He is insane, haunted, or both. The editing is tender, decisive, unsentimental, the lighting minimal. Film rarely consents, as it does here, to accept how much of life is lived in literal and figurative dark.
The demands on our sympathy are drawn out. The tension does not diminish after her antagonist shuffles away. At first, it is hard to see where Wendy is escaping to; the camera takes turns leading and following her. (A local, I can’t help but notice that she is shown walking in locations that appear impossibly remote from each other in Portland.) Her safe space turns out to be the shadowless, windowless restroom in the back of the Shell station. Here, she breaks down. Calmer, she splashes water on her face. “Hang on, girl,” she says, “I’m coming.” Is she talking to herself, or addressing her beloved Lucy? (Coincidentally, this also sounds like a remark Williams might have made in her first film role, Lassie, from 1994.)
She arrives before dawn outside the Walgreens, to wait. The guard’s appearance, on his day off, is the one moment of grace in the film. He has good news; the pound has called. The delay was a result of the fact that Lucy had already been taken to a foster home; the dog’s luck is better than her master’s. Wendy admits it is good news, but the word “good” sounds hollow in her mouth—and yet, for a moment, she looks relieved, almost happy. The chatty benevolence of this tall, gray-haired fellow contains the faintest echo of the tiresome Clarence (Henry Travers), the angel who earns his wings saving Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey from suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Preparing to say goodbye, he positions his body between Wendy and his car. He does not want the woman sitting on the passenger side to see him give Wendy a fistful of dollars. As if to make it more real to her and to us, the camera lingers on the six dollars in her palm, the crushed bills unfolding suggestively in the light, like a blossom.
The rest of this, her final day in Portland, is spent giving up hope. The mechanic has only bad news: her car is a lost cause, not worth the price of repairs. A cab takes Wendy a long way to Lucy’s foster home. She observes an older man leaving a house, and assumes, without evidence, that this nice man will care for Lucy. Or so Wendy tells Lucy through the chain-link fence of the yard behind the house where Lucy is confined. Wendy has found her dog, only to surrender her to this stranger providing what Wendy cannot: a house, a yard, routine.
Wendy has spent the film withdrawing—or in flight from—life, already so far from society that she appears reluctant to touch anything but Lucy, as if doing so forces her to acknowledge that she possesses a thing all others also possess: a body. Is her decision to leave her beloved with the man who adopts her a difficult choice arising from the run of bad luck in the film, or is it inevitable, a consequence of choices made long ago? Is it possible Wendy cannot take care of Lucy because she cannot, or will not, take care of herself?
I have the highest respect for those who refuse the terms of the world as they find it, even though we are all complicit in the making of the world we find—even in our refusal. It is hard to argue with Andy: you shouldn’t own a dog if you can’t afford dog food. Essential, however, to disagree forcibly with what I think he means: a person ought to be able to afford dog food; to Andy, there is something reprehensible about poverty. As if Wendy ought to be denied the comfort of a dog because she is poor. Yet Wendy is more prepared for bad news than good, heeding Andy’s admonition more readily—though no more easily—than she accepts help from the benevolent security guard.
Andy, who sports a crucifix, has no compassion; he does not understand the weight of love, or the agony of love’s loss. While Wendy abandons Lucy to protect the only being she loves from the demands of her world, she might be telling herself that she is protecting Lucy from the world as it is. The film shows us only what Wendy does, not why. She jogs after a freight train, throws a small bag through the open door, climbs aboard, and positions herself—chin on her knees, hood of her hoodie up—against the opposite wall. The promise of Alaska, of a destination where she might be needed: all but lost. The camera looks out on the passing greenery, and the film ends as it began, with the sound of trains.