Overwhelming sound introduces Wanda (Barbara Loden), first spotted waking after a rough sleep from her sister’s couch. Just outside, industrial mining equipment roars nonstop, and inside her sister’s baby screams with hunger. Due in divorce court, Wanda seems strangely hypnotized by the din, and she moves like a sloth to get ready, so distracted that she leaves the house with rollers in her hair. Loden (who also directed) shows Wanda taking a circuitous route to the court via an extreme long shot. Wanda, in a light blouse and capris, walks through the black, artificial hills of the mine’s dumped earth, further separating Wanda from the world around her.

Both Loden’s direction and performance continually stress Wanda’s remoteness from the people and society around her. Loden’s clipped, direct delivery lends a childlike aspect to Wanda; naïve and flighty, Wanda drifts into court late as if it were no problem, and when the judge confronts her on the horrible things her husband has said about her character, she simply offers that he should keep the kids, projecting no desire to see any of them ever again. But if that makes her seem like an oppressed housewife, her subsequent behavior muddles any clear motivation. An immediate one-night stand would ordinarily signify a desire for sexual freedom, but Wanda is as awkward and uninvested in that as her marriage, and the next day cannot take the hint that the man wants to go on without her.

Wanda’s ambiguity quickly proves to be an asset. The improvisational dialogue regularly results in everyone speaking in awkward, ill-fitting sentences, and the lack of focus prevents the film from becoming too narrowly defined by one theme. When a tailor refuses to keep Wanda as a seamstress because she works too slowly, his halting speech prevents him from becoming a Dickensian caricature and instead turns him into a reluctant villain, a lower-middle-class worker who gently explains his position instead of a crook casting her out in her time of need. Rather than craft a film of clear heroes and villains along visible divides of class and gender, Loden winds up with a loose travelogue that implicates various aspects of American social life and suggests that dissatisfaction and alienation existed well before the ‘60s but have now been exacerbated by that decade.

If Loden favors a slack narrative to better explore richer themes, her direction occasionally snaps to thrilling focus. In the scene where Wanda’s one-night stand attempts to sneak out of their motel room, insert shots of his hands gingerly packing his belongings so as not to wake her, his movement is so delicate that the scene acts as a miniature thriller. Later, when Wanda intrudes on Norman (Michael Higgins), who appears to be a bartender closing up shop, his nervousness is explained only several minutes into their interaction. Wanda asks for a hand towel, the camera tilts down and Norman’s reflexive glance reveals the true bartender, unconscious, with the towel on his face, betraying Norman as a robber.

In Wanda’s travels with Norman, Loden pioneers a subgenre of film that updates the “women’s picture” of the ‘50s with a grittier setting outside the domestic sphere. Norman is a reedy, nebbish little man, but also brutish, and though Wanda provides him with comfort and assistance, he is abusive. But Norman is also mystified by her, as when he slaps her for taking too long to get food and she hands him change, visibly shocking him for the innocence of her gesture. Wanda’s relationship with Norman—half-unwitting, half-codependent—renders the woman even more dissolute and alienated, and the film’s climax is notable less for the robbery that Wanda has to abet but for the way that it leaves her permanently cut off from the world. The RNA for so many movies can be found here, from Wendy and Lucy to Winter’s Bone. Its refusal to offer easy heroes or villains crafts a portrait of a woman that is not defined by any one factor but is nonetheless a complete vision of the ways that social divisions inform identity as much as this character’s identity defines the sociality around her.

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