Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
I have friends who absolutely will not watch a movie if there is a scene where someone treats a dog cruelty. With their soulful eyes, dogs in particular are often the centerpiece of the most emotionally wrenching scenes. I think this is because it’s so easy to project emotion on something that can’t speak for itself. Kellly Reichardt, the writer/director of Wendy and Lucy, knows this. Her subject is a young man and her canine companion, but don’t think that this is a cloying, indie equivalent of Marley and Me. No scene strains for affect, and the quietly observant direction gives you time to appreciate the relationship between these two.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) is “just passing through” a small town in the Pacific Northwest. She has only $525 to her name, and is struggling to reach Alaska. There is no more dog food, so Wendy walks to the local market, and ties her mutt Lucy to a bike rack. Of course, with only so much money left, Wendy steals the dog food, not realizing that a store employee is spying on her the entire time. She’s caught red-handed, and sent to jail. Lucy is not at the bike rack when she returns, so Wendy spends the next day trying to find her friend.
The simplicity of the storytelling is the movie’s strongest asset. Wendy has no context except for the few days we spend with her. There are tidbits that we learn – she is from Indiana, for example, and she frustrates her sister back home. Even with a lack of information, the audience learns plenty about Wendy, due in no small part to Michelle Williams’ fine performance. She consistently hits the right notes, and her moments of despair are never over the top. Wendy is simply determined. She understands that to dwell would cause her to lose hope, something which helps her establish a rapport with the audience. During her search, she encounters strangers who, in a way, are systemic of our crumbling economy. They act as if they’ve been forgotten. Some take pity on Wendy, some abuse what little power they have, and they all lead a meager existence, wandering through a small town as life passes by. The director films these characters with restraint and dignitty. With her cinematographer, Reichardt also gets some gorgeous shots of the Cascade mountains.
Wendy and Lucy is like a good short story. I guess this should come as no surprise, as Reichardt adapted the screenplay from Jonathon Raymond’s fiction. On one level, it really is just about a girl and her dog. What elevates the movie is the empathy of the observant camera, and Williams’ understated performance. Every scene feels plausible, giving the movie a deep emotional impact. Even the bittersweet final scene, which could have been handled poorly, hits all the right notes. I have seen plenty of movies about people and their pets, but I don’t remember the last time one has moved me so deeply.
Here are other deliberately paced movies reqiure some degree of patience:
Old Joy. Before Wendy Lucy, Kelly Reichardt made Old Joy, another movie adapted from Raymond. Mark lives a quite life with his wife and is expecting a baby. His friend Kurt unexpectedly arrives, and suggests that they go on overnight hike to nearby hot springs. Mark reluctantly accepts, and hints that there is a reason he hasn’t seen his friend in years. The two go on a trip, take in the scenery, talk for a while, and go home. Really that’s all that happens, which is why a movie like this is difficult to summarize. Kurt and Mark both seem wistful and a little sad, feelings that Reichardt consciously invokes. You get the sense that they both yearn for something from their past. Kurt doesn’t have a family, so he seems far less together than his friend. He uses the kind of hippiespeak that infuriates an east-coast city slicker like myself. He’s aloof and annoying, and I’m not sure whether it’s intentional. Yet for a movie with subtle character development and virtually no story, it is still engaging. If you liked Wendy and Lucy, be surre to check this one out. And don’t worry, at a mere 76 minutes, Old Joy does not overstay its welcome.
Shotgun Stories. For a title that promises violence, Shotgun Stories is surprisingly subdued. It focuses on two unhappy families who share the same father. Brothers Son, Boy, and Kid (yes those are their names) remember their father as an abusive SOB. So when the old man dies, Son feels the only appropriate reaction is to deliver a bitter eulogy and spit on the casket. The old man’s new family, who fondly remember the deceased, don’t take kindly to Son’s behavior. Thus begins a bitter blood feud. Don’t be fooled – the movie’s violence is not stylized, and little bloodletting happens on screen. More often than not, we see the consequences of the violence; namely, how bitter, lonely men with few prospects question their actions and deal with bloody repercussions. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has more in common with Terrence Malick than he does Quentin Tarantino. Terse dialog is the only thing that punctuates the long silences of this movie. Shotgun Stories is not thrilling, but does an uncanny job of presenting a specific mood, and how violence might escalate with believable small-town characters.
Werckmeister Harmonies. Ok, I’ve talked about a lot of slow movies in this column, but this one takes the cake. It’s two and a half hours long, it’s black and white, it’s in Hungarian, it has a threadbare plot, and the average shot is four minutes long. You still with me? Good. Béla Tarr directed this creepy movie about a sideshow invading a small town. Before the visitors arrive, there is an amazing eleven minute take in which Janos, the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist, forces drunks to enact his vision of the apocalypse. Clearly this is a group who are in serious need of entertainment. With its mysterious leader known only as “The Prince,” the sideshow finally arrives. The show’s centerpiece is a giant whale, a creature whose presence inspires awe in the townsfolk. We wisely never see a shot of the whale in its entirety, which helps the viewer get a sense of how others regard the creature. There seems to be a supernatural force at work here. Everyone begins to revolt, and town devolves into a state of chaos. The movie has an amazing style – Tarr, like Kubrick, has the patience to orchestrate long, gliding takes that all but hypnotize the viewer. If you allow youself get rapt up in such an unusual movie, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I have buttons for eyeballs.