| Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Mountain”) stars as Wendy Carroll, a selfless and idealistic young drifter traveling from Indiana to Alaska with her retriever Lucy. Her car breaks down in a whistle-stop town in Oregon. She gets arrested for shoplifting cans of dog food at a local grocery store. The police take her into custody and Lucy goes missing. After being detained for several hours and paying a $50 fine, Wendy spends the rest of the movie looking for her canine companion.
She is befriended by a security guard (folk musician Walter Dalton) and employs a local mechanic (Will Patton) to fix her car.
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”) takes a minimalist approach in adapting the short story “Train Choir” by Jonathan Raymond. This is a fine example for aspiring independent filmmakers of what is possible on a shoestring budget.
The main themes are loneliness, financial struggle and the kindness of strangers. The only certainty is provided by the constant sound of trains in the background. The theme song is hummed by Wendy during the opening scene when she is playing fetch with Lucy in the woods.
The movie was shot entirely in Portland on a miniature canvas that includes a gas station restroom, a roadside phone booth, a dog pound and vacant lots. Nothing much happens in this slice-of- life drama taking place on the fringe of society over the course of four days.
Except for a change of underwear, Wendy wears the same outfit during the entire movie. She has an androgynous look and could pass for a boy. It is hard to develop any sympathy for Wendy considering the stupid things she does while the camera is rolling. You speculate how she actually made it this far with such poor planning and limited funds.
Despite a running time of only 80 minutes, the movie proceeds at a snail’s pace with very little action or dialogue. This road picture has been labeled as a distaff version of “Into the Wild,” although very little is revealed about Wendy’s past. Her sister and brother-in-law back in Muncie are just voices on the telephone.
The usually glamorous Williams (former fiancé of the late Heath Ledger and mother of Matilda Rose Ledger), who is in virtually every frame, is nearly unrecognizable (much like Charlize Theron in “Monster”) in the lead role. Reichardt had her go without makeup and not wash her hair, shave her legs or clean her fingernails for two weeks during filming. Williams even slept in her car for a few nights to get into character. It paid dividends since she gives an astonishingly heartbreaking performance as a marginalized homeless character that is either invisible or generally ignored in the real world.
The performance ranks right behind Melissa Leo’s amazing thespian turn in “Frozen River.” The Toronto Film Critics named this film as the Best Picture of 2008 and Williams as the year’s Best Actress. It was one of the five nominees for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. It appeared on more than 65 critics’ top 10 lists last year after a world premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
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Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"