Wendy and Lucy a melancholy saga of woman's unraveling financial life

Wendy (Michelle Williams) and Lucy both lead a dog's life

Wendy (Michelle Williams) and Lucy both lead a dog's life

Sometimes, less really is more. Modest but cosmic, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is a movie whose sad pixie heroine, Wendy (Michelle Williams), already skating on thin financial ice, stumbles and, without a single support to brace herself, slides into America's lower depths. Introduced calling for her dog, Lucy, Wendy loses first her liberty (briefly), then Lucy (again), and finally, her car in the course of a dead-end road trip from deepest Indiana to the Alaskan frontier.

This prescient tale—which Reichardt, as with her previous feature Old Joy (2006), adapted from a story by Jon Raymond and shot in the Pacific Northwest—is haunted by lonesome freight trains and a hobo sensibility. Reichardt has described her movie as a post-Katrina story: Although it's never made obvious, Wendy apparently lost everything except Lucy in some previous catastrophe. Her beat-up Honda dies as she's passing through a small Oregon town; waiting for an estimate on repairs she knows she'll never be able to afford, she drifts into a supermarket and, overcome by the spectacle of abundance, pockets beef jerky and some dog food.

With its quiet camera and fondness for long shots, Wendy and Lucy is so relentlessly understated that it comes as a shock to notice that the supermarket employee who grabs Wendy as she leaves is wearing a crucifix. Then he adamantly delivers the movie's key line: "If a person can't afford dog food, they shouldn't have a dog!" Wendy is booked, photographed, fingerprinted, and fined $50. By the time she returns to the supermarket, Lucy is gone. Wendy walks around hopelessly calling for her—it's the worst day of her trip, if not her life.

By mid-movie, Reichardt has succeeded in making Wendy's search for her dog synonymous with her humanity, which is to say Wendy's inchoate yearning. At one point she laboriously crafts a few signs to paste up, captioning Lucy's picture, "I'm lost!!!" as though the identification were total. Lucy, played by Reichardt's own dog, is a suitably charismatic mutt, but otherwise Wendy is thoroughly alone. Though she encounters a few locals—notably a pitiless garage mechanic (Will Patton) and a sympathetic security guard (Walter Dalton) who charitably lets her use his cell phone to call the dog pound—the movie is essentially a solo turn.

Trembling throughout on the verge of a tearful breakdown, but far too dignified to allow her character to choke up, Williams delivers a sensationally nuanced performance that, were it not so resolutely undramatic, would constitute an aria of stoical misery. Determined and self-contained in her dark-blue hoodie and pedal pushers, Wendy is a meticulous vagabond who keeps careful accounts of her meager expenses and manages to perform her ablutions every morning in a gas station washroom. In the movie's bleakest, scariest moment, this grimy closet serves as her sanctuary.

Spare, actor-driven, socially aware, and open-ended, Wendy and Lucy has obvious affinities to Italian neorealism. Reichardt has choreographed one of the most stripped-down existential quests since Vittorio De Sica sent his unemployed worker wandering through the streets of Rome searching for his purloined bicycle, and as heartbreaking a dog story as De Sica's Umberto D. Yet Wendy and Lucy is truly an American saga, and one of its most melancholy.