In this trying season of global economic despair, the relationship between breadwinner and dependent loved ones frequently erodes into anger, resentment and hate. Those who are down to their last few dollars grasp at employment straws often using the “greener pastures” rationalization that a change of locale will solve everything. Those wondering why their regular, filling meals are a thing of the past feel trapped and unable to grow up happy and content.
Director co-writer Kelly Reichardt (using Jonathan Raymond’s novel as the basis for their screenplay) has fashioned a cautionary tale for the ages. Wendy (Michelle Williams digs deep into the simmering angst—her breakdown in a gas station washroom is as powerful as it is brief) is convinced that better days await in Ketchikan, Alaska. Her devoted, playful dog, Lucy (playing herself), is game for anything until dwindling cash reserves and a Honda that won’t turn over temporarily halt their quest for a new, better life in Oregon.
Reichardt goes to great lengths to let his characters reveal themselves. The opening sequence gives a tastefully voyeuristic view (in no small part due to director of photography Sam Levy’s discreet angles and distance) of Wendy and Lucy playing chase-the-stick—the obvious love, trust and good humour established much more visually than pages of back-story or flashbacks ever could.
The specifically placed freight train horns also serve as a subtle reminder to the siren call of happier times anywhere but here. The supporting cast (notably Wally Dalton playing the tenderhearted security guard) are all nice people just doing their jobs and surviving to live another day. Wendy is also shown early on to care for others, gathering cans to cash in at the recycling depot only to be faced with a lineup so deep that she gives away her slight stash to a down-on-his-luck veteran in a wheelchair. Another point deftly made.
This entire, relatively difficult but nowhere near hopeless, situation takes a tragic turn for the worse as Wendy goes shopping in Walgreens. With Lucy tied to a bike rack outside, her master searches the aisles for extra-special canine delights but has no intention of paying for them. While pivotal to the remainder of the film (where nothing seems to go right: the car will require a King’s ransom to ever run again, Lucy disappears as her owner is charged, fingerprinted and detained by Portland’s finest) that criminal act doesn’t ring true. Strapped as she is, Wendy is far from destitute and today’s camera-infested world virtually assures being caught in the act. Her lame appeal “I wasn’t finished shopping …” quite rightly falls on deaf ears.
After further events unfold, the narrative comes to an unexpectedly moving conclusion when Wendy realizes the life she can offer her best friend is not fit for a dog. JWR