I have a soft spot for stories about bad things that happen to good dogs. In fact, almost any story involving the loss of a beloved canine will have me shedding anticipatory tears and reaching for the box of tissues before the title sequence has finished. I still haven’t gotten over Old Yeller. The very thought of Snoopy Come Home causes tears to start welling up in my eyes and sense of despair to settle upon my soul.
So it has been with anticipation mixed with a bit of dread that I’ve been waiting for Wendy and Lucy to come out on DVD, knowing from having read reviews that a central plot element involves faithful canine Lucy going missing. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy follows Wendy (played by Michelle Williams, in one of the better performances of the year, low-key and restrained and all the more moving for being so) who has journeyed from Indiana to Oregon on her way to find job opportunities in Alaska, the frontier state, and seemingly the last frontier of hope for the economically distressed Wendy.
Although westerns often celebrate the individual mobility of the cowboy and his horse, this contemporary western features a character who finds herself unable to move, stuck in place when her car breaks down in a small Oregon town from which she then can’t seem to escape. The film is both a western and an anti-western. Wendy and Lucy gains much of its poignancy by playing Wendy’s story of being entrapped by economic circumstances against the mythology of being on the open range or open road, of heading west to the last frontier.
The scene most evocative of the mythology of striking out for the frontier appears early in the film and serves as our first introduction to Wendy and Lucy. The two are walking slowly and seemingly pleasurably down a path in the woods, and the scene is shot in a long tracking shot that follows them as they move along. This tracking shot is matched by a later shot when Wendy is at the dog pound searching for the missing Lucy. The camera moves past cage after cage, each one containing a dog that isn’t Lucy, and the similarity to the earlier shot is striking. Here we see the cages that weren’t visible in the opening scene, the less tangible cages of poverty and isolation that become more and more visible as the film progresses. In the final scene of the film, Wendy has abandoned the car that has become more hindrance than help and hopped a train. Although hopping a train and moving on is often romanticized as an expression of freedom, shots of Wendy inside the boxcar remind us of the earlier scenes of dogs in cages, and Wendy, on her way to Alaska at last, seems more boxed in and trapped than at any other point in the movie.
This is an understated film. There’s not a lot of action. But I found Wendy’s story to be a compelling one. And I’m glad I kept a box of tissues handy.