Nomadland

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. 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.

Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.

This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.

Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara WeavingAbbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities. 

 

Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013,  “The Way, Way Back“.  That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all.