It's possible to think of Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" as the anti-"Slumdog Millionaire." Where Danny Boyle's flashy fantasia offers economically depressed audiences a miraculous distraction from their daily woes, akin to the MGM musicals that flourished during the Great Depression, Reichardt's haunting, mournful film engages the texture of a life in which money and hope are equally thin on the ground.
Wendy (Michelle Williams) arrives in a rusted-out Northwest mill town with only a handful of possessions to her name: a 20-year-old Honda, a few hundred dollars and a yellow lab named Lucy, the only thing standing between her and solitude. Although her slender frame hardly seems suited to manual labor, she is headed north, to the salmon canneries of Alaska because, as she tells a fellow vagabond, "I hear they need people there."
After her car breaks down, Wendy, presumably feeling short on cash, attempts to shoplift a can of dog food and is promptly jailed. When she returns, Lucy is gone, leaving Wendy to trudge the streets in search of her only friend. A lesser actress might take the opportunity to engage in histrionics, but Williams plays Wendy as a woman whose last tear was cried some time ago. Her resolve seems less a matter of tenacity than reflex; she keeps moving forward because she has nowhere else to go.
Williams' performance is remarkable not only for its depth but for its stillness. Whether in long shot or extreme close-up, she barely disturbs the movie's lyrical compositions, beautifully filmed by Sam Levy. Reichardt often pushes her to the edge of the frame, literally marginalizing her, as if she were about to fall off the edge of the world.
Wendy's Alaskan trek may not seem like much of a plan, and Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond offer no hint as to how Wendy came to be in such dire straits, but the movie is set in a world where even those with steady jobs are just a step away from desperation. Much as they might feel for Wendy (and not all of them do), they're barely able to help themselves. A security guard (Wally Dalton) who kicks Wendy out of a drugstore parking lot becomes a kindly sounding board, and a mechanic (Will Patton) tries to cut her a break on her dying car. But their compassion is constrained by their own unsteady circumstances and is not equal to the magnitude of Wendy's plight.
Fortunately, Reichardt is a minimalist first and a social critic second, which is to say that while "Wendy and Lucy" is as damning as any Ken Loach film, it preaches in a whisper, not a shout -- a whisper or, rather, a song, like the wordless, undulating hum that takes the place of a musical score. Evanescent and intangible, it dissolves into the air, leaving something tragic and mysterious behind.