“The International” is a title that doesn’t seem to tell you much. Globe-trotting espionage thrillers are about a dime a dozen; marketing wisdom would seem to require some indication of what sets this one apart. Indeed, it’s an exceedingly cosmopolitan example of the genre — we get an assassination in Milan, a shootout on the Upper East Side, domestic moments in Luxembourg and Lyon, television dispatches from a civil war in sub-Saharan Africa, and a final climactic moment with Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia looming on the near horizon. But I’d imagine the title was chosen to intimate an overarching insidiousness, rather than just point out high production values.
The film’s satisfactions, however, lie mostly in those very shallows.
For one, director Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”) is admirably intent on getting the most out of all the genre’s surface pleasures — not only does his film reek of world-wise, location-shot glamour, but its physical details are meticulous: Square-jawed Continental types in well-tailored suits walk down the glassed-in corridors of International Style office buildings, manipulating the latest in telecommunications gadgetry, moving urgently from place to place in gleaming European luxury sedans. All this stands in some contrast to Owen, who never looks anything less than exquisitely disheveled.
Slick surfaces are pleasing, but they can only do so much to unify what is, essentially, a divided film. The opening is a glammed-up bit of police procedure in which Owen’s character — Louis Salinger, an Interpol agent — coordinates with Manhattan District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to investigate the shady dealings of the International Bank of Business and Credit. While it would be trite to call this portion CSI: EU, it shows such concern with the nuts and bolts of forensic science — there are bullet casings recovered, security footage reviewed, foot impressions analyzed — that I think I’ll label it just that. It’s as blandly satisfying and self-contained as the primetime prototype.
The turn comes in Manhattan, on Fifth between 88th and 89th streets. There, in the open spiral and recessed niches of the Guggenheim, Salinger is ambushed by the bank’s henchmen, and the systematic defacement of the museum’s current show coincides the undoing of the whole criminology bit. Tykwer, as if conscious of the first hour’s gleaming vacuousness, promptly embarks on a rather deliberate investigation of Salinger’s soul. After an absurd scene at the Guggenheim (Uzis, video art), he’s given a chance to confront an apprehended bank exec, and their ensuing conversation has a manic quality; it is transparently intent on making up for all of the film’s preceding inarticulateness. The two expound upon, as far as I can tell, some of the stickier ethical implications of Kissinger-esque realism, leading Salinger to mutter lines completely inconsistent with his character as we’ve been led to understand it (“Sometimes you find your destiny on the road you took to avoid it”). Apparently, this is what lies behind all that exacting unkemptness.
So, we’re left with the grandstanding pith of a few lines like the above and a whole mess of sensual surfaces and tight action sequences — a downright embarrassment of compensatory riches. But good movies can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less.
* * *
Case in point: “Wendy and Lucy.”
Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young woman of indiscriminate age (she could be 21 or 32) trying to make it to Alaska with her dog, Lucy, in their 1988 Honda Civic. Old cars and far-western locales have very particular cinematic associations, but writer-director Kelly Reichardt is not offering a coming-of-age, finding-one’s-identity sort of picture; this isn’t a road trip in the romantic sense, there are no scenes of empty highways or sweeping landscapes. If anything, it’s a contemporary migration story, a narrative of the fervid embrace of hardship for the sake of a vague, potent dream. In this case, a dream to find work in a place where, as Wendy puts it, “I hear they need people.”
Williams holds the screen, often on her own, for most of the movie, and it is the film’s private, mundane moments that betray the fervor of her aspirations. We see her obsessively counting savings on the passenger seat, changing her underwear and brushing her teeth each morning in the bathroom of a Shell station, and running her hands along a map from her origins in Indiana to her current location, a rundown town in eastern Oregon.
The town turns out to be a quagmire: The film is just the story of her attempts to get out. Her car breaks down; she’s worried her budget won’t get her across the border; she can’t find Lucy. The scale of the movie — or lack thereof — gives these events a genuine, weighty urgency (something “The International,” for all its efforts to pound our pulses, ultimately fails to do). The camera work is curious, often lingering on Williams’ features, often only slightly more in focus than her surroundings; we see in her eyes the growing weight of her attempts to keep desperation and helplessness at bay.
The supporting performances are equally fine, particularly Walter Dalton’s turn as a security guard who befriends Wendy, helping move her car — Reichardt and her co-writer, Jonathan Raymond, steer clear of sketching him into Sage Old Man with a penchant for dispensing Valuable Advice. Admirably, that aversion to employing worn-out types holds true with the other bit parts — a mechanic, a grocery store manager, a dog pound clerk.
Though Wendy has modest means, bony legs and a thin face, the great accomplishment of Williams’ performance is that we, as an audience, never find ourselves directing abstract sympathy at this vulnerable character. Sitting in the quiet movie theater, thinking, “Dammit, I want her to get that dog back,” I realized that I haven’t wanted anything that sincerely in a long time.
“Wendy and Lucy” opens at Criterion today.