(Oscilloscope) Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Larry Fessenden, Will Oldham, Walter Dalton, John Robinson, Marilyn Hickey, John Breen. Directed by Kelly Reichardt
The world is not always an easy place to live in, but it’s particularly hard on those who have nothing. Sometimes even making a move from one place to another to find work can be an undertaking requiring the bravery of a soldier running into battle.
Wendy (Williams) is down on her luck, having dwindling funds and no job. She is driving from Indiana to Alaska to (hopefully) find work in a cannery, although nothing is certain. She is alone save for her only friend in the world, Lucy (a golden retriever) whom she hangs onto like a life raft. The only love Wendy experiences in life comes from Lucy.
Unfortunately, as often happens to those who can least afford it, disaster sets in. Her car breaks down in Portland, Oregon. Unnerved, she goes to a grocery store to get some dog food for Lucy, and winds up being arrested for shoplifting. By the time the mess is sorted out, Lucy is gone. The rest of the movie is taken up by Wendy’s search for her only friend in a place she doesn’t know.
The plot is deceptively simple but undeniably effective. Most of us have, at one time or another, lived on the ragged edge, one paycheck away from utter disaster. We can all relate to having nothing, or being left with nobody. Director Reichardt brings a sense of realism to the movie that is palpable; there is little background music and nothing forced about the plot.
There are a number of background characters who flit in and out, most notably Dalton as a security guard who is the only oasis of human kindness in the movie. Most of the other characters in the movie treat Wendy with indifference or contempt, which is how the homeless are generally regarded by most of us, as if they chose homelessness over a life of productivity. While some may have, every last one of them has feelings just like the rest of us and this film reminds us of that.
Williams does a courageous job as Wendy, her face expressing so much of the internal dialogue, reflecting Wendy’s hope, terror and concern when need be. She has to carry the movie to a real extent and she does so with a good deal of dignity. This isn’t a glamorous role – far from it – but it’s a role that can make directors and producers sit up and take notice and hopefully Williams will get a few juicy roles out of this.
This is the first movie I’ve seen by Reichardt although she’s done several, and I must say she’s quite a talent. She keeps the tone low (perhaps too low for those who prefer their movies more challenging) and quiet; this isn’t a movie that gets up in your face but rather, it sticks with you. She co-wrote the script along with original short story author Jonathan Raymond (the two also collaborated on Old Joy) and while this isn’t a strident call to arms, the spirit of Tom Joad is alive and well and living in this movie. That is quite the legacy as far as I’m concerned.
WHY RENT THIS: A decent indie film about poverty and the bonds of love that are unshakable. Williams gives an impressive performance.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s gut-wrenching at times. The overall tone is a bit slow.
FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a bit rough, and the subject matter is a little on the mature side; even though there’s a dog involved, this is probably more for the more mature members of the family than the kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get into character, Williams did not bathe for the two weeks of shooting, wore no make-up and did not shave her legs or cut her fingernails. After shooting was completed, her friend actress Busy Philipps treated her to a manicure and pedicure.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Reichardt also acts as a visiting professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College; she has thoughtfully included five short films by four of her colleagues made from 1979 through 2004.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or might have made a slight profit.
FINAL RATING: 6/10