How many appreciations of Terrence Malick’s Badlands and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence note the likely connections to Barbara Loden’s Wanda, which was released a few years earlier than those films? I know mine don’t, partly out of my own culpable ignorance and partly because Loden—a model and actor who made this one feature film before dying of cancer 10 years later—was quickly forgotten as cinephiles prioritized the work of white men.
That was our mistake, for Wanda is a wonder—influenced itself by (and responding to) 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde in the way it reframes that vision of American violence and despair as particularly male and deeply psychological. (One more name check to note here: it’s hard to imagine Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass without this.) Loden stars as the title character, a dazed young woman with a possible intellectual disability trying to navigate a meager existence in Pennsylvania coal-mining country. We learn early on in a court date Wanda nearly misses that she has left her husband and two young children; agreeing to a divorce, she tells the judge, “They’d be better off with him.” From there, the movie is all about Wanda’s future—or lack thereof.
The Bonnie and Clyde element comes in a bit later, when Wanda walks into a bar as it’s being robbed by Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins). Unstable in the opposite way—where Wanda is serenely unaware, he’s jumpy and paranoid—he takes her along on a string of petty crimes that build to an ill-advised bank heist.
Likely Cassavetes was an influence on Loden too, given his groundbreaking 1960s output in the independent film scene. That’s where Loden, although already a well-established actress, chose to work as writer and director. Visually, the film has a rough, grainy aesthetic, as if coal dust had gotten into the camera lens. There’s a remarkable early long shot of Wanda, wearing mostly white, trudging through the vast gray of a mining pit—a solitary figure against a near-apocalyptic backdrop. The irony is, this setting is no more foreboding than the bars, hotels, and shopping centers where Wanda spends the rest of the film, left to the mercy of men with cash and cars.
Note early on how Wanda is addressed by the men she meets: “What can I do for you, lover?” “Want something, blondie?” Her eventual relationship with the Higgins character is at once sexual, parental, and professional. She calls him “Mr. Dennis,” for instance. When she sloppily eats a plate of spaghetti, he tells her, “Wipe your mouth, will you?” as if she is a child. Yet sex is also part of their arrangement. Wanda is a woman unable—not allowed—to create her own identity. Instead she’s instantaneously slotted into the roles society demands, even if they oddly conflict.
Loden’s performance is defined by its pauses. Sitting in a different bar early on, Wanda hears a man tell the bartender that he’ll pay for her beer; she drops her head and holds it there, steeling herself to face the obligation she now feels she has. (After all, this is partly the reason she came in.) There’s another moment in the bathroom of a different bar where she’s washing her face and holds herself for a few extra moments, clinging to seconds of peace.
The film’s climactic moment is that bank heist. But unlike Bonnie and Clyde’s infamous shoot-out, it’s not the sequence that ultimately lingers. For me, that comes later, when Wanda has wandered into yet another bar and finds herself smashed into the middle of a loud, boozy table. Loden’s rough-and-tumble camera squeezes its way into the claustrophobic mix. For much of the film, Wanda has stumbled from one dangerous situation into another, like a gangly fawn in a booby-trapped forest. And this is where we heartbreakingly leave her: a woman under the influence, hopelessly trapped.