At barely over eighty minutes long, Wendy and Lucy already had me. I wasn't a fan of Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, whose attention to the shifting rhythms between landscapes and her characters' inchoate emotional states nevertheless grew taxing with actors as uninteresting as Daniel London and Will Oldham (I never bought his tearful confession for a moment). A flintier McCabe & Mrs Miller suddenly seemed possible.
W&L still emits that smell of rotting pine and animal fur that gave Old Joy its verisimilitude, but it's got an actress who can smoulder without working our tear ducts. Playing an Alaska-bound traveler with just a beat-up hatchback and her dog Lucy, Michelle Williams does all kinds of things with her pinched face. The car breaks down, she's forbidden from sleeping in a drugstore parking lot, she's arrested for stealing dog food, and her damn dog goes missing, yet she cedes not an inch to bathos. Reichardt's camera is like a stress test, lingering on Williams' face as if waiting for it to crack. I liked that W&L neither condescends nor gives unnecessary credit to the yokels whom Williams meets; they're exactly as kind as they need to be, and no more. When Williams accepts an obliging but alert watchman's offer to use up his cellphone's free minutes, the gesture is so unexpected but welcome that it's like water in the desert. Wally Dalton's unactorly performance helps. The supporting cast, especially Michael Brophy as an infuriatingly self-righteous grocery store stock boy, interacts with Williams with no fuss (only Will Patton as an is-he-really-an-asshole? mechanic seems too overtrained for the proceedings).
Reichardt's got her material figured out, all right, for better or worse. This kind of indie minimalist miserabilism unsettles me; the way in which these movies don't mind dipping into sentimentality makes me wonder whether Reichardt can film adult emotions instead of flattering the desires of her audience (when Williams hums an unknown tune to herself, I assume it's Will Oldham's). Someone send her a good script.