Through no fault of her own, Michelle Williams has over the years acquired a number of apparently indelible labels, which until recently it seemed that she would never be able to shed from her career and personal life. Depending on her audience’s generation, she appeared destined to remain in the mind as either “The one from Dawson’s Creek who wasn’t Joey”, “Ennis’ beard in Brokeback Mountain” or “Heath Ledger’s widow”, regardless of whatever new film she had a supporting role in.
Now, thanks to Kelly Reichardt’s superb direction and her own absolutely remarkable performance, Williams has thrown all that aside in the most definitive fashion imaginable in Wendy and Lucy, playing the eponymous Wendy (Lucy is her beloved pet dog), who, stranded in Oregon after her car breaks down on the way to Alaska, where she plans on starting anew, struggles to hold her semblance of a life together.
The lack of any distinct narrative for much of the film — to summarise, Wendy loses Lucy, and wants her back, desperately — is belied by the pure, haunting strength of Williams’ portrayal: she delineates the character with unbelievable acuity, turning a figure whom lesser actors may do little more with than ‘aimless waster’ into a woman whose motivations, however minimal and ordinary, are writ large across a pained, anxious face.
Even whilst having created an extraordinarily sparse aesthetic — evoked as well by Will Oldham’s bare, six-bar score — Reichardt and Williams manage to convey an awful lot of beautifully realised detail that accumulates into a picture of Wendy so complete that it takes multiple viewings to really begin to appreciate — everything, from the worn, tired face to the weak, high voice endows her with sadness and sympathy.
Reichardt’s proficiency in simultaneously assimilating so many themes into a single character’s predicament — namely an economic and social alienation — have distinguished her as one of American independent cinema’s true masters, and allowed Williams to finally found a role which cannot be reduced to a punchline.