Skip to main content

My sailboat’s out here in the desert.

Nomadland
(2020)

(SPOILERS) This is dreadful slop, less appealing even than the contents of Frances McDormand’s poop bucket. I’d heard some criticism of Nomadland along the lines of Frances “as Fern” interviewing homeless types for two hours, but I doubted that could the sum of its parts. But no, that really is the Best Picture Oscar-winner’s patronising, self-congratulatory and entirely unconvincing remit. There’s an essential dissonance as soon as the film attempts to bridge these divides: the genuine dissolute and the feted millionaire thespian directed by a billionaire’s, sorry multimillionaire’s, daughter in the service of a grossly opportunistic project. And to what end? Why, to own nothing and be happy, of course.

Honestly, I thought Nomadland would never end. And I was in raptures when it did. Do I need to hear McDormand servicing her Shakespeare lust? No, I can wait for the fraternal partnership-rupturing Joel Coen movie for that. Do I need to see David Strathairn breaking Fern’s plates? No, I’d much rather watch him belting out Belter patois in The Expanse. Do I need to see Fern/Frances conveying studious attentiveness as she feeds off her homeless subjects for the movie’s dubious gain? No, I can catch a Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson or once even Clive James or Alan Whicker, documenting true-life subjects more pithily (if I really must). Nomadland is Borat without the laughs. Not that Borat has any laughs in it, so maybe they’re closer together than you’d think at first glance. Make a goddamn documentary, Chloé, if that’s what you really want, but don’t attempt to pass this masquerade off as a drama, particularly when it is so facile and rudimentary in its purpose. If Zhao’s hybrid style works for you, fine. More power to you. I found it achingly distracting, phoney and superficial.

Zhao’s film is based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, about older Americans forced into nomadic lifestyles in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The movie, like Zhao’s previous The Rider, was one of Obama’s favourites of the year, which ought to tell you a lot about one of the architects of upheaval (there’s no need to draw partisan lines in this; when one of the staunchest advocates of “the tyranny of the dollar”, as the movie’s figurehead vandweller Bob Wells calls it, is promoting your movie, then it’s evident that flagrant hypocrisy knows no bounds).

We join Nomadland in 2011. Fern (McDormand) has lost her job in Nevada when the local plant shuts down. With her husband also having died recently, she sets out in a van, taking on seasonal work and hobnobbing with other nomads (“No, I’m not homeless. I’m just… houseless. Not the same thing, right?”) All well and good. I don’t doubt McDormand’s righteous liberal intentions (she’s also a producer). Zhao’s inauthenticity of background has been expectedly deflected by her similar genuineness (you can tell she’s genuine, as her next movie is for Marvel). What may work for a non-fiction, journalistic work doesn’t necessarily transfer in dramatized form, however. For starters, the drama simply isn’t dramatic. We’ve seen Oscar winners portraying the homeless before, but at least Robin Williams was doing it in a wacky Gilliam movie.

McDormand’s previous Oscars were appreciably deserved, but she’s nothing but an impostor here, and the seams always show. Whenever she or Strathairn are in frame it’s a case of “Look, the blessed actors are trying to fit in”. And there’s something vaguely offensive about McDormand’s poverty-porn faux sympathy as she attentively quizzes the non-actors, who dutifully recite chapter and verse of their roads to the road. Nomadland is a beautifully filmed, exploitative vox pop and as redundant as that sounds. Fern has problems here or there. Has a flattie, is moved on for parking where she shouldn’t. She works at an Amazon un-fulfilment centre, appropriately enough: a non-billionaire’s daughter receiving endorsement form one of the world’s biggest. Amazon-approved Nomadland is a bit like military-stamped Top Gun, except really, its Disney approved. The picture is insidious like that. Strathairn’s Dave mildly pesters Fern for sex, I mean companionship, or something. And drops her plates.

The stilted tone – some might call it lo-fi, to be charitable – travels no better when Fern visits her extended family. Indeed, since this is presumably the most “written” section of the movie, the limitations of Zhao’s remit are most exposed here; it turns out the extended family are all devoted to their real-estate enterprises and investments. You know, like… the opposite to Fern’s new culturally rootless route. Oh, my! Fern’s sister tries to drum up her choice, that she’s one of the “nomads… pioneers, part of an ancient tradition”. In common with such clumsy tactics, whenever more is asked of Fern than an empathic look, McDormand seems at sea. Even quoting Romeo and Juliet. Certainly, the suddenly wise Fern is an odd one (“Just go. Be a grandfather” she instructs Strathairn).

Nomadland may appear to be a portrait of hardship-and-yet-freedom borne through necessity – “I could live in a RV, travel, and not have to work for the rest of my life” – but once you have disenfranchisement, the next step is ushering the survivors (of whatever nature) into the reality of tomorrow, where there’s no room for warriors of the wasteland, or even just noble travellers. There’s nothing organic about “promoting” this via a Hollywood movie.

Ludovico Einaudi’s score infuses melancholy into cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ landscapes as Fern looks on wistfully/pensively/contemplatively (but not constipatedly, not given that five-gallon shit bucket). If the movie were deserving of any Oscars, they would be for Richards’ work. Not for being a movie (best/worst faux-documentary?) or for directing or lead performance. I also couldn’t help but notice the picture reaching for certain paradigmatic touchstones. A young guy professes to having a lighter fashioned from dinosaur bone – we’re all like yeah, right, which should always be our reaction to dinosaur bones – and another man invites a group of nomads to “hold out your hand and look at a star”. The same man who shows them Jupiter through a telescope… and boy does it look exactly like the NASA-sanctioned pics!

If Zhao can inject such “authentic” flavour on this subject, the extreme reverse of what she’s used to, just imagine how she’ll wow us with Eternals. I really hope it’s shot EXACTLY this way, with Kumail Nanjiani, all buffed up, interviewing the cast about being actors playing superheroes. It’s sure to be almost as fascinating and fulfilling as Nomadland.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.