So this review is late in coming because I did not see this until after we did our Oscar Preview show on the Lambcast. The others who were on the show recommended it and everyone seems to agree it is the likely Best Picture winner. In our current times, with the limited releases we had this last year, and the way the Academy has consistently trended for several years toward honoring smaller movies, I can 100% understand why this will be the case. It may be limited in scope, and plot and technical innovation, but it is beautiful and it contains another marvelous performance by Francis McDormand.
I am sure that someone, somewhere will find themes in here that will offer a social criticism. In the long run, I don’t think that those ideas are what the movie is about or how it should be processed. This is a character study of a woman, who stands in for a number of like minded people, who can’t quite adjust to living a rooted life. It seems apparent that she did so for a number of years to be with her beloved husband, but the fact that her whole town vanishes seems to suit her. She is happy to be an itinerant worker, moving from job to job and place to place, in order to satisfy a need for independence that seems to define her and the others she crosses paths with.
As a travelogue, the film shows us some truly beautiful parts of our country, without simply becoming a travelogue. The vistas, sunsets, and roadside stops are all photographed in a way that draws us in but without being showy or self reverential. It is a crisp and efficient way of seeing things and the only time it seems to be drawing attention to itself is when it lingers on an image. Otherwise, we are seeing the world the way Fern, our main character, would see it.
While there is a sense of melancholy that hangs over Fern and the other “Nomads”, none of them seem to be bitter or unhappy. They are functioning in the moment and who thinks that every moment has to be uplifting for life to be worth? Sure Fern is a displaced person, but she never sees herself as a victim. She has multiple opportunities to settle into a more comfortable lifestyle but rejects those repeatedly because of her wanderlust and desire to be unfettered. As someone who treasures way too many things, quilts, pictures, dishes and even furniture, I know I would have a hard time with her life. McDormand shows Fern to be resourceful, and capable of managing herself. She is friendly but does not want to be encumbered by her friendships. In a number of ways, including the wandering lifestyle, she reminds me of my late sister-in-law Darla. They want to have friendships but they want them on their own terms. Comfort is less important to them than control. The ability to choose for yourself is more important than the consequences of some of those choices.
The director Chloé Zhao, has a good eye for those things that make the character personal. I don’t think the film is a technical marvel or innovative in any way, it is just put together in a manner that works for the kind of movie it is and I think restraint in choices may have much to do with the acclaim that her work on this has achieved. McDormand is a natural for a role like this, she is less fiery than she has been in other pictures where she is the central character, but I think that shows her range pretty well. This is a graceful movie that has a lot going for it. It is contemplative without telling you what to contemplate. It can be read in a number of ways which will probably inspire a thousand think pieces in magazines and cinema schools. The best thing about it is that it seems genuine and true to the person at it’s center.