Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 26, 2020 8:24 pm 
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Forced off the grid and choosing to stay there

At the outset of Nomadland, based on a book by Jessica Bruder, Chinese-born American filmmaker Chloe Zhao's second big feature after her remarkable The Rider (NYFF 2017), onscreen captions announce that in 2011 US Gypsum closed a factory and resultingly the town of Empire, Nevada collapsed. Proof: the zip code was discontinued. The movie follows Fern (Frances McDormand), suddenly a widow and set adrift by the town's collapse. Fern suddenly takes up life as a nomad, living out of her modified van and working the seasonal shifts at Amazon fulfillment centers, beet processing plants, or as part of a janitorial crew at an RV park, in a job found by her fellow migratory nomad, Linda May. Linda May is a real person. So are many in Nomadland - and the artistry of this film, and theirs, is that they're good playing themselves; and McDormand blends in well with them. Fern is not "homeless," she says, but "houseless." Not a strong distinction.

I confess my resistance to Nomadland, though it weakened somewhat past halfway through, then came back when the ending didn't seem to avoid sentimentality as The Rider did so well. This film shows with its grand old fashioned Searchlight Pictures opening that Zhao is more mainstream than I'd supposed. The Rider had a real person (wounded young cowboy Brady Jandreau) right at the center of it; it was about him. The new film has a famous actress, Frances McDormand, as Fern, at the center. That's very different. Another well known actor-person is on hand as Fern's would-be boyfriend on the road, David Strathairn. That relationship doesn't quite work out, and Straithairn doesn't quite convince. These presences of course make the movie more marketable, but otherwise a very different kind of movie, with a big producer and smooth strings-plus-piano score weaving the meandering storyline together.

As Fern meets many real persons in her wanderings and goes to new places this becomes a travelogue of modern hard times in the American West. McDormand, who's been in so many good movies, playing here one of the most central roles of her life, doesn't fail us here. But Fern is a cheery cypher, a soul who doesn't stay and doesn't share. Not that there aren't people like that out there, and maybe they're the kind who wander like this and resist offers of places to stay like with her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) - meeting with whom, to get a desperately needed loan, is a defining moment. But there's not much of a story here. Maybe the main story is not the one about stubborn wanderlust but of harsh economic necessity, which some viewers think makes this film prophetic of future post-pandemic travails.

I'm with Michael Phillips, only more so, who in his Chicago Tribune review admits he finds Nomadland "a shade less wonderful than The Rider, with fewer sharp edges and a tad more contrivance." He says he loves it anyway. I don't love it. I can see, though, how it fits with a group of strong American movies about contemporary outlaws and wanderers who live off the grid. Its moments of checking in with settled people reminded me of Captain Fantastic; the saga to save the van seemed familiar. Personal favorites in this very American genre are Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic and Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and another recent good one is Debra Granik's Leave No Trace. (People make lists of off-the-grid movies.) At Walgreen's checkout the other day, I found there's a slick handbook for sale on "living off the grid." Maybe this is the lingering ingrown cold edge of the American pioneering spirit. Perhaps the widespread lust for such life helps explain how the US has done worse than any other country in the pandemic, because so many people refuse to follow rules.

Nomadland has, of course, some nice moments. It's rich with characters, notably "cheap RV" evangelist Bob Wells. Also touching is the drunken young man - I didn't catch his name - whom Fern gives a lighter to and whom she meets later and gives her another, prettier lighter (in this movie, alas, a significant event), and to whom she recites Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") to dress up a letter to his girlfriend. Lovely, thanks to Shakespeare. Only trouble is, in a film as busy and distracted and in love with sunsets and vistas as this one, a few nice moments aren't enough.

Nomadland, 108 mins., debuted Sept. 11, 2020 at Venice, winning the Golden Lion and two other awards, also showing in many other festivals, including Toronto (People's Choice award), New York (where it was viewed, as the Centerpiece film, for this review), Helsinki, Reykjavik, Zurich, London, Hamburg, the Hamptons, Montclair, and more. Current Metascore 98%.

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