Warning! This review contains major plot spoilers.
Proposition: People who cannot afford a dog should not own a dog. Mr. Neo C. Crunchycon, your opinion?
Crunch: Look, Ken, despite director Kelly Reichardt’s clumsy attempts to (as she said in the Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival) “explore” (yeah, we know she meant “indict,” wink-wink) the “why can’t they pull themselves up by their boot straps” rhetoric she heard in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by pretending that Wendy is the victim of an unjust society which exploits her poverty-induced helplessness, it’s clear to anyone with eyes to see that the film as a whole supports the above contention and that Wendy (and by implication most poor people) is simply a victim of her own bad choices.
It’s not just her shameful, petulant resentment of the store clerk—carefully branded with a cross necklace in the sort of reflexive “all people of faith are villains” Hollywood iconography that drove Michael Medved to despair in Hollywood vs. America—who caught her shoplifting that shows her true colors, nor even her inexplicable frustration at the mechanic (who doesn’t charge her for the diagnostic and even gives her a discount on towing). It is the fact that she steals the dog food not out of necessity but while she has enough cash in her pocket to pay for it. (She pays her fine at the jail in cash, remember.)
While Wendy’s situation is sympathy inducing, her response to it is typical of the moral poverty created by the entitlement culture fostered by the nanny state. When caught stealing, first she lies, then claims that since she is “just passing through” the store needn’t fear recidivism. Somehow we are supposed to feel sorry for Wendy as she accumulates unexpected costs—but those unexpected costs are the consequence of her ignoring the warnings and help that others are trying to give her. When the car won’t start she mentions to the mechanic (in Oregon) that a previous mechanic in Utah had told her the serpentine belt needed to be replaced, yet she continued to drive it anyway, doing more damage to car. This sort of “thinking only in the moment” results—duh!—in consequences she finds undesirable and burdens she is unable to meet because she hasn’t taken the time in between the warning about and arrival of consequences to prepare for them. Instead she opts to trust that something will happen to avoid a crisis or someone else will step up to bear the costs of her decisions for her.
Just about the only responsible thing Wendy does is giving up the dog, but even that is done only when she is forced to and not because it’s the right thing to do.
Ken: Very interesting, thanks Crunchy. Mr. Liberal P. Bleedingheart, rebuttal?
Bleedingheart: Ah, nice to see the compassion in “compassionate conservatism” isn’t in any danger of eclipsing the conservatism. Sure, Wendy has contradictory impulses and strategies for dealing with her ever-mounting problems, but that’s precisely the point. Reichardt shows the “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” problems faced by the poor in our “blaming the victim” society. If she uses her money on unexpected expenses we say, “Why didn’t you plan better?” If she holds it back for the costs she will need to get to Alaska and start a new job, we say, “Why should we help you when you are not willing to invest your own resources?” If she tries simply to do without, such as when she sleeps in her car, we say, “You can’t park here!” or “It’s reckless and irresponsible of you to put yourself at risk.” Perhaps Wendy should have just stayed in Indiana and gone on welfare, but—and I think this is important—her stated motivation for trying to go to Alaska is that she heard there was work there.
Yeah, the store manager and clerk did indeed “teach her a lesson,” but that lesson is going to be an expensive one for them, too, because the drain on the economy created by taking someone who wants to work and is having problems and stripping her of the few resources she has pretty much increases the chances that she will end up on welfare and be a much bigger drain on public resources in the long run.
Crunchy: Ah, nice to see that logic is in no danger of replacing “tortured” in “tortured liberal logic.” It’s not that people aren’t compassionate to the poor—the security guard lets Wendy use his phone and gives her a handout, the mechanic gives her a discount, the home-owner gives the dog a good home rather than leaving it to be put down. Who’s to say that if Wendy didn’t ask, that the store manager (or clerk) wouldn’t have let her work for the stuff she stole or showed the same compassion the security guard and mechanic did? It’s the steal-first-beg-only-if-caught-and-never-ask attitude that gets Wendy in trouble, not the meanness of principled people, who are actually more generous towards Wendy than she deserves.
Bleedingheart: There is such a thing as institutional injustice or structural oppression. Let’s look at your hero, the security guard. He makes a big deal out of giving Wendy the handout, but when the camera pans on it, we see that it is a five wrapped around some ones. In other words, it’s clear that this is insufficient to deal with Wendy’s problems—and he knows it. So it’s really more of a symbolic gesture than a serious offer of help, more about assuaging one’s own conscience, allowing him to turn away from the poor person who is in front of him without doing any serious damage to his notion of himself as a good person. As for the mechanic, you are assuming he is being truthful, and he may well be. But he knows Wendy doesn’t have the money for a tow to get a second opinion, and he is shown on the phone placing a bet with a bookie. For all we know, the car could need only a relatively minor repair (such as the previous mechanic suggested), but he uses Wendy’s helplessness and ignorance to his advantage to bilk her out of a car that he can then liquidate for his gambling debts.
Bleedingheart: No, I don’t. But neither do you. And more to the point, neither does Wendy. It’s not that Wendy is in trouble because she happens to meet some unscrupulous people; it’s that she’s in trouble because the way society is structured makes it hard (if not impossible) for those who are poor to protect themselves from whatever unscrupulous people there may be since it is much harder for them to avail themselves of the services and protections that most of us take for granted. There is a point in the film where Wendy is walking and she passes a graffiti covered wall that says, ominously, “GONER.” It is her resources, not her efforts that will determine her fate, and her destiny is a foregone conclusion.
Heck, even the question of what is a necessity and what is a luxury is one that the film probes. The aforementioned sentiment, actually uttered by the clerk, that people who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog assumes that a dog is a luxury—a pet. But given the omnipresent threat of sexual molestation and attack that surrounds Wendy once she becomes homeless, a dog can take on a very different role—that of protector. Would the clerk and his friends sound so smug if we glossed this statement as saying, “Women who can’t afford to pay for physical protection should be willing to go without rather than trying to hold onto it”? Or maybe we’d all feel better if Wendy just exercised her second amendment rights to bear arms and bought a gun (which she wouldn’t have to feed) instead of a dog.
Crunchy: Yeah, I saw that “GONER,” too. But you know what? I reject the fatalistic, deterministic world view that it symbolizes. The demand for those less fortunate to pull themselves up by their boot straps is less about demanding they succeed than that they try—that they don’t, like you, just say, “well, it’s hard, so therefore someone needs to do it for me.” And I don’t think you should despise the little things. You have no idea if that six or seven dollars the guy gave her was a widow’s mite. Wendy is surrounded by any measure of things that, say, the poor in Two Legged Horse would give their right arms (no pun intended) to have—public transportation, cheap communication, free public services (like the animal control shelter), public restrooms where she can wash and relieve herself, but it’s just never enough for you people, is it? The solution is always that society needs to do more for the individual, never that the individual needs to do more for society. You know what, go watch The Pursuit of Happyness a couple dozen times. What one man can do, another can do.
Bleedingheart: Oh boy, you’d rather be poor in America than Afghanistan. There’s a goal to aspire to and a standard to be proud of.
Ken: Hmm. Is there anything you two can agree on?
Crunchy/Bleedingheart: Well, we can certainly agree that Reichardt’s direction is precise and assured, and we like the fact that she lets the situation speak for itself rather than glossing over or omitting the points that would be problematic to the point of view with which her ultimate sympathies lie. And we can all agree, we hope, that Michelle Williams is pretty damn terrific and would be guaranteed a best actress nomination were Wendy and Lucy a big studio release. She may get one anyway. Not only does she appear in every scene in the film, but she has to suggest change—particularly the gradual breaking of Wendy’s spirit—as much physically (in her posture, in her timing) as through dialogue. Because the movie doesn’t give her a flashy, Oscar baiting, scene, it might be easy to overlook just how accomplished this performance is. Sure, even a lesser actress could wring a tear or two out of Wendy’s good-bye to Lucy, but watch Williams in the quiet scenes—when Wendy’s on the train after leaving Lucy, when she wakes up from sleep to the imminent prospect of rape or murder and is frozen between the urge to run and the need to remain perfectly still, or when she is fingerprinted a second time and shows in her posture and face the silent transition from struggle to capitulation, from anger (at herself and at those too indifferent or distracted to see her) to resignation. She even manages to make the one overtly mawkish and sentimental scene seem real and not a manipulative grab for tears, probably because the script allows us to understand how much Lucy means to her not by having her tells us in inflated words but by showing us just how hard Wendy tried to hold on before finally letting go.
This review originally appeared at Looking Closer Journal.