If there's such a thing as “intimate grandeur,” writer/director/editor Chloé Zhao's Nomadland is rife with it. A fictional drama adapted from a celebrated nonfiction by Jessica Bruder, and largely populated by figures from the book playing versions of themselves, the movie debuted on Hulu this past weekend, and it kind of screams for a more expansive scale than you're able to replicate in your living room (or, God forbid, on your phone). Happily, though, a good-sized TV proves a more-than-acceptable substitute. Because for all of the overwhelming panoramas Zhao gives us – acreage teeming with parked recreational vehicles, a densely packed Amazon shipping warehouse, a tract-house subdivision with God's-eye mountain views – her cinematic gaze is intensely specific, and rooted in what those vistas actually mean to the people living amidst them. Nomadland is a true anomaly: a low-key slice of life that's shot, and feels, like an epic. And it's a thing of singular, wondrous beauty no matter how you watch it – though, again, maybe not if you watch it on your phone.
One of the film's few wholly invented characters, Frances McDormand's Fern once had a husband, a blue-collar worker who recently died, and once had a permanent residence, located in the company town of Empire, Nevada. After the 2008 economic crash, however, Empire's Sheetrock factory – the main source of local employment – shut down, and so, literally, did the town; opening title cards reveal that Empire's zip code was officially discontinued in July of 2011. Nomadland begins just a few months after that, and we follow Fern, over the course of a year, as she travels the western states in search of temporary jobs, living out of her modified white van that she christens Vanguard. Narrative-wise, there's not much more to the movie than that: Fern lands seasonal work at a state park and an Amazon shipping warehouse and South Dakota's Wall Drug; she finds respite with an RV community in Quartzsite, Arizona; she makes friends with fellow itinerants along the way. (Some, such as Linda May and Swankie, are non-professional actors playing figures modeled and named after themselves; one, a friendly guy named Dave, is played by revered character actor David Strathairn.) Yet for a release with so little overt plot, Zhao's film practically overflows with incident and detail, and creates a mosaic of real-world experience that boasts the breadth and scope of a classic American novel.
Much of what we witness are matters of practicality and problem solving. How, as an unemployed nomad, do you find money for repairs when your van breaks down? Where are you allowed to park when you have to stop for the night? Where do you defecate when your home doesn't have a bathroom? At heart, though, the movie is less about the how than the who – and because everything and everyone we see is viewed through the perspective of the miraculously expressive, empathetic McDormand, that's plenty riveting in its own right.
McDormand is that rarest of screen performers: a movie star who appears absolutely free of vanity. (In one of our first encounters with Fern, the woman appears to be thoughtfully contemplating the desert landscape until we realize she's just making sure no one is watching her pee.) And even though we're only incrementally, and sporadically, given insight into why Fern has taken to the road as opposed to simply relocating – as a substitute teacher with a firm command of Shakespearean sonnets, she clearly has some higher education – McDormand's presence and sublime focus make us feel we know this character from the inside out. Yet McDormand's ability to make the act of listening so electrifying, and so moving, is what gives Nomadland its particular punch. Zhao's script enables May, Swankie, and several others to tell their own true stories of hardship and resilience, which they do with deeply affecting naturalism, honesty, and humor. It's in Fern's reactions to their reminiscences – her welcoming body language, her expressions of concern and understanding – that the film achieves its sense of universal context, the notion that everyone's individual story is part of a far larger, less explainable one. McDormand's eyes here are like a hug, or at the very least, a hearty handshake. You feel like anyone could tell Fern anything. And you kind of want them to.
There's so much legitimate poetry in Zhao's movie, both verbal and visual, that the more prosaic elements tend to stand out more distinctively, and distractingly, than they otherwise might have. For most of the film's length, Strathairn's Dave keeps popping up like a good bad penny – this wanderer always seems to be around precisely when Fern needs him to be – and despite the actor's natural warmth and charm, he quickly begins to feel less like a character than a contrivance. And although they're introduced with elegance, references to Fern's beloved collection of dinner plates and Swankie's dream of the ideal memorial service arrive with a somewhat off-putting sense of conventionality. You find yourself waiting for the moments in which these offhanded remarks will directly influence the narrative, and by golly, they do.
It's a measure of the film's success, however, that examples such as these bothered me more on a second viewing than a first – and it's a measure of the film's greatness that I dove into that second viewing a mere half-hour after my first viewing concluded. Nomadland is bursting with pleasures, from Joshua James Richards' gloriously rich cinematography to composer Ludovico Einaudi's haunting, plaintive score, and Zhao's inspiring achievement will have earned all the Oscar nominations that inevitably come its way in four weeks' time. Make plans to see it whenever and however you can – even if, I grudgingly suppose, your only option is your phone. Zhao's and McDormand's collective talents might just make the device seem as big as an IMAX.
In hindsight, it was probably smart of me to precede my streaming screening of Nomadland with a cineplex screening of Land, because if I had seen them the other way around, I may not have enjoyed the latter title half as much as I did – and I really only half-enjoyed it in the first place.
The feature-film directing debut of Robin Wright, Land casts her as Edee, a city dweller whose recent family tragedy drives her need to live a solitary existence in an abandoned cabin in the Canadian Rockies. For most of the movie's length, everything that Chloé Zhao's picture pulls off with honesty and specificity, Wright's does with obviousness and a healthy dose of contrivance. (Even its title unintentionally suggests a halving of the Nomadland experience.) Prior to Edee's first meeting with Demián Bichir's Miguel, a fellow recluse who winds up saving her life, the mountain weather is ferociously harsh, hunting is a moral impossibility, and a bear ransacks her cabin, consuming nearly all of Edee's food supply. After Miguel shows up, and for what we presume is at least a full year, the weather is mild, hunting is both accepted and wildly successful from Edee's first shot, and that bear never returns. Edee's early hardships are moderately affecting, but nothing in the presentation suggests that the character is ever in any true peril, and it's all just a little too cute for comfort. I smiled when Miguel quietly, absentmindedly sang a few lyrics from Tears for Fears' “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” on the way to his truck. I smiled less when, like clockwork, Edee and Miguel eventually, shyly sang the song together in front of a campfire.
Still, as feel-good heartbreak dramas go, this one is totally acceptable. At first, I worried a bit about Wright's decision to cast herself as Edee – not because of the inherent self-interest/egotism, but because years of House of Cards trained us to view Wright as steely and stoical and able to handle herself in any situation, thank you very much. But another director – one with that kind of clichéd impression of Wright's talents – might not have asked her to dig so deeply into Edee's suffering. While the blister pain and hypothermia and starvation are credibly performed, Wright does her best work here detailing Edee's grief (the exact cause of which is withheld until mere minutes before the closing credits), and watching her break down is like watching one of your parents cry – awkward and uncomfortable, yet transfixing. Bichir is also lovely, Miguel's evident sadness constantly hidden behind a facade of geniality, and although Bobby Bukowski's cinematography isn't thematically revealing, it's at least postcard-gorgeous. Staring at his images isn't a bad way to spend 90 minutes of your life. And neither is Land itself, a work that may seem like the comfort-food version of Zhao's film – Baby's First Nomadland – but that still supplies plenty of cinematic nourishment.
I CARE A LOT
Every so often in a movie, in ways that are both exciting and infuriating, a supporting character will show up and convince you that you're watching the wrong person's story.
Writer/director J. Blakeson's I Care a Lot (which began Netflix streaming this past Friday) concerns Rosamund Pike's Marla Grayson, who employs unscrupulous doctors, lawyers, judges, and health-care facilitators in order to declare certain senior citizens mentally unfit and consequently put in Grayson's custody, after which the woman liquidates the assets of her “clients” and keeps their money. Not long after Blakeson's film begins, Grayson lands on her latest target: Dianne Wiest's Jennifer, an independently wealthy senior who owns her own house, lives alone, has no apparent family, and, Grayson surmises, won't be missed if sent into living assistance. The fun of I Care a Lot is supposed to stem from the realization that Grayson picked the wrong lady to pick on. The frustration of I Care a Lot stems from that lady being way more interesting than the one getting the majority of screen time.
My guess is that after her Amazing Amy in David Fincher's Gone Girl, Pike could play this type of bureaucratic monster in her sleep, and to the star's credit, she doesn't appear to be sleepwalking here; she's admirably unrepentant in her hatefulness, and at all times marvelously watchable. But we've seen this Pike performance before. After roughly four decades in movies, though, we've never seen this type of Dianne Wiest performance before. She enters the film with traditional Wiest cheeriness, her Jennifer not comprehending how Grayson could even think about taking over her life. But after Jennifer is effectively incarcerated, we begin to understand the full depths of what Grayson has gotten herself into with this latest conquest, and Wiest begins to feel like the central figure in a tale Blakeson isn't all that interested in telling – the one about the mother of a Russian mob boss (the sturdy and unexpectedly moving Peter Dinklage), and a woman who's intensely sure that, for Grayson, the other shoe is gonna drop soon. Before the film is three-quarters old, Jennifer is shucked off-screen for regimented “special care,” and Blakeson's movie becomes a depressingly standard comedy/thriller with coincidences galore and Grayson pulling off James Bond tricks her previous life didn't remotely prep her for. Always in the background, though, is Jennifer, biding her time with a fearsome, dead-eyed grace that would shame Livia Soprano, and earning Wiest an unofficial award for best line reading of the year: “Oh-h-h-h … you're in trouble now!” Even given its late-film twists that made the experience more interesting than I presumed it would be, I didn't care a lot about I Care a Lot. But I sure did whenever Dianne Wiest was on-screen. If only her movie didn't recognize Jennifer as a casualty, as opposed to the thwarted heroine she absolutely should have been.