Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 15, 2008 2:24 pm 
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Painful downsizing

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young woman down on her luck. Unspecified troubles have led her to make her way from Indiana to Oregon in a late-Eighties Honda Accord she's been told has a serpentine belt that isn't going to last much longer. Her sole companion is her golden brown mixed breed dog, Lucy (played by the director's dog, Lucy, who also was in her acclaimed first feature, Old Joy). She's headed for Alaska to make fast money in a Ketchikan fish cannery. In a park the first evening she hangs with some young people. One guy tells her she's got the right idea. There's good money up there in the canneries. He also admits he got drunk one night and had to flee his Alaskan job after wrecking a piece of conveyer equipment worth $100,000.

She sleeps in the car, but is awakened by a guard (Wally Dalton) who tells her she can't sleep there and has to move the vehicle. It won't go. As the Cannes synopsis goes, from then on "the thin fabric of her financial situation comes apart, and she faces a series of increasingly dire challenges." Indeed, this is the case. Wendy already may not have enough cash to make it up to Alaska if all goes well (she repeatedly looks at a page where she calculates her dwindling supply of dollars). When the major car issue arises, she may not even have enough to feed Lucy with. The news she gets from the garage man (veteran actor Will Patton) is decisive, anyway. Then she has a bad encounter with a young store employee (John Robinson of Van Sant's Elephant and Lords of Dogtown), and from then on things slowly but surely go downhill. The end of the film is not the end, however. There's no knowing how life will go for Wendy. The power of the film, which is painful and devastating to watch, lies in its nearly real-time effect as it delineates the transition from one level of marginality to several notches down.

Williams is quietly convincing, but not spectacular, in her performance as Wendy. By joint agreement, she plays Wendy, as Reichardt put it in a press conference, "very buttoned-down." The only person who seems to keep her from despair is the kindly security guard. Only once does she show violent emotion, after a terrifying encounter in the woods, which the director said may represent a vision of her future. Will she become like that crazy hobo (Larry Fessenden) herself, or just be thrown in with his kind?

The film, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes this year, is the result of long planning by Reichardt, who lives in New York, including many miles logged in her car with Lucy by her side looking for locations. During the 21-day shoot, she knew the Portland settings so well she directed the DP on shots. The result is many classic images of generic regional Americana, vacant lots, drugstores, a supermarket, which in their colors and angles recall the poetically banal Seventies and Eighties color photographs of Stephen Shore, which is to say that there's a keen eye here. Reichardt seems to have a rare sense of how even white Americans very often come to live on the margins. In a time of economic crisis, this is a relevant story. The director, who confirms here that she has a distinctive vision, excels at careful observation and specific regional settings. The presence of the by now high profils Michelle Williams should help this second feature to gain Reichardt a larger audience.

As with Old Joy, Reichardt's writing collaborator was Jonathan Raymond, who was an assistant to Todd Haynes on Far From Heaven. The film, based on a short story by Raymond, has been bought by Oscilloscope Pictures and will open at Film Forum in New York December 10th.

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