Arts Review

American Stories

The 1940 John Ford film of The Grapes of Wrath came out in the final stretch of the Great Depression and is, for many, the defining cinematic summation of that historical moment, capturing its various moral and political facets and embodying its ethos. In its way, Chloé Zhao’s wonderful new film, Nomadland, accomplishes a similar feat in its comprehension of the last decade-plus, an era that has unfolded in the shadow of the Great Recession which began in 2008. At some level, the (mostly sorry) history of the recent American past stems from that economic disaster. Populist uprisings, radicalism on the fringes, the collapse of a stable labor-based economy—all have led to a sense of constant, thrashing upheaval and a redefinition of the national mindset. And all of this is the backdrop for Nomadland which, like The Grapes of Wrath, is set amongst wanderers and economic migrants who traverse our uniquely American mythscape, the rural West. We all now live in an economy built to a large extent on gig work, and Nomadland is the first important film to acknowledge that reality.

Frances McDormand is Fern, a widow in late middle age and a refugee from a Nevada town which completely shut down when the local mine went out of business. She travels the West, living out of a beat-up van, following temporary and often exploitative work opportunities. These include picking fruit and vegetables, working at national parks, and packing boxes at Amazon warehouses. Fern gradually becomes part of a large, loosely connected group of nomads who gather periodically for festivals of mutual support and fellowship. She learns survival skills from Bob Wells, a guru to the community, and befriends Linda May and Charlene Swankie, both like Fern, women of a certain age living on their own on the road. Money anxieties are constant, and at one point, strapped for cash and unable to make necessary repairs to her van, Fern visits her sister, who does not understand Fern’s life choices but nonetheless supports her. Fern meets and briefly connects with—or rather lets her life run parallel to—fellow nomad David (David Strathairn). He decides to settle down in the home of his adult son and invites Fern to join him, but she refuses, unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities that come with tying oneself to others.

Zhao, like many of the current crop of independent American filmmakers, uses Nomadland as an opportunity to dig deep into issues of national character and historical continuity. The nomads are hardy pioneers, crisscrossing the plains, the mountains, and the desert. They valorize self-sufficiency and distrust authority. They are victims of late capitalism, but they don’t see themselves that way. They feel a spiritual kinship to the land and share an anti-establishment mindset. They follow in the line of Natty Bumppo, Huck Finn, Ántonia Shimerda, Sal Paradise, and of course Tom and Ma Joad. Zhao explored this same territory in her previous film, the marvelous The Rider, a study of a cowboy trying to find his place in the modern world. She is joined in this fascination with American mavericks by fellow filmmakers Kelly Reichardt (First Cow, Old Joy), Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic) and Debra Granik (Leave No Trace, Winter’s Bone), among many others. What they all also share is a devotion to atmosphere over plot, a confidence in the pleasures of unhurried pace, and a naturalistic aesthetic inherited from the literary naturalism of Norris, Dreiser and Steinbeck. These film­makers’ political point of view is progressive, even though the characters they portray are essentially libertarian. They also share a highly visual approach, enhanced by sumptuous cinematography that places actors within large-scale environmental landscapes, much as Ford did in his classic Westerns. But these new filmmakers are objectivists, far in feeling from Ford’s highly personal, psychological, internal approach. They are American neo-neorealists.

The use of actors is a complex issue for Zhao and this new group of American filmmakers. Neorealism, as traditionally practiced, avoided the use of recognizable faces, let alone actor-y presences. In Nomadland, most of the people whom Fern meets on the road are actual nomads, nonprofessional actors playing themselves. The film is based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by reporter Jessica Bruder. In preparing for the film adaptation, Zhao and McDormand traveled in the circles that Bruder had described and befriended many of the people she had profiled, including the key supporting players Wells, May and Swankie. The blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction never feels manipulative, though, thanks to Zhao’s delicately honest approach, which simply observes, never editorializing or dramatizing.

On the other hand, in the central role of Fern, Zhao has cast a two-time Academy Award-winning actress. True, McDormand has never been a Hollywood type. There’s always a plainspoken, homespun base to every character she plays, and she works without star vanity. She has a genius for seeming grounded, even when working with directors with baroque sensibilities quite unlike Zhao’s, such as Martin McDonagh, Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers. Still, McDormand’s work in Nomadland is at a new level of fearlessness. It’s impossible to catch her consciously acting or standing outside the character in any way. Of course like all great screen performers, McDormand has an inherently compelling presence that the camera captures and magnifies. She brings to Fern a lightly energetic, slightly jumpy sense of movement that is both awkward and charming. And her weathered face conveys warmth and wry intelligence, balanced by a wary watchfulness. It’s easy to assume that McDormand is simply “behaving” on screen, but also easy to underestimate the difficulty of that task. In fact, her work is calibrated with breathtaking precision: focused, engaging without ever showing the seams.

I honestly can’t imagine any of McDormand’s brilliant actor peers (Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Charlize Theron, Viola Davis) pulling off this role in the way that McDormand does. Not that she’s a better actor (whatever that means). She may not have Streep’s range or Blanchett’s wildly glamorous charisma. But what she does, no one does better. McDormand’s effect is in contrast to that of the estimable actor David Strathairn. He’s far less famous than McDormand but is still one of those “that guy” actors, recognizable the minute they appear. And that’s the problem. McDormand’s work has so successfully lured us into forgetting her fame that Strathairn’s entrance halfway through the film feels jarring, through no fault of his own. We’re suddenly aware that there is inevitable artifice in the narrative, that we’re not watching (in Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-quoted definition of cinema) “truth, 24 times-per-second.”

Does Nomadland romanticize the plight of the millions of Americans who are working from gig to gig, living without health insurance, retirement savings, or home equity? The film does not address the opioid epidemic, which has devastated the American heartland, nor does it touch on the dark side of the politics of individualism. I would argue that Zhao deliberately avoids any kind of black-and-white, Manichean conflict. There is no external malice in the film, at least nothing rooted in another person. Even the very present matter of economic exploitation, as manifested by Amazon et al., is not proclaimed from a soapbox. Instead, Zhao and McDormand situate the conflict within Fern’s psyche: the push and pull of stability and freedom and her profound need for both. The core of the film is this tension between the comfort of familial and romantic ties and the fear of being too dependent on others. “I’m not homeless; I’m houseless,” she explains to her family, and her embarrassed pride in this situation hinders a fulfilling relationship with David and a secure situation for her old age.
The polar opposite of Nomadland, aesthetically speaking, is David Fincher’s film Mank, a recounting of the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, still considered by many to be the greatest film ever made (or at least the most entertaining of the great films, in Pauline Kael’s estimation). Mank is the nickname for Herman Mankiewicz, a true Hollywood maverick and the brother of the equally brilliant Joseph Mankiewicz (of All About Eve fame). Herman was commissioned by Orson Welles, then a theater and radio wunderkind in his mid-20s who had been snatched up by RKO, to write a screenplay based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz was well positioned for this task, having spent many weekends at Hearst’s famous home San Simeon with the host and his mistress, the film actress Marion Davies. Traditionally seen as the inspiration for Kane’s talentless, hapless second wife Susan, Davies was actually a successful and talented comedian and a witty, vivacious woman. Mank depicts the friendship between Mankiewicz and Davies and suggests that he sold her out with the Kane screenplay. This tension and the attempts by Mankiewicz to combat his alcoholism and existential stagnation are Mank’s central concerns.

Fincher is one of the great visual stylists in contemporary film. Few can match his sense of structure within a frame and camera movement across that frame, as evidenced in brilliant films like The Social Network, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and his greatest work, Zodiac. Mank is visually spectacular, filmed in black and white to recapture its era and art directed with incredible precision; California in the 1930s feels magnificently present. It is also distressingly hermetic, without a spark of real life. Every moment feels constructed, observed, parsed. Fincher is an extraordinary talent, but he was given too much leeway by Netflix, which produced Mank. The screenplay was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack (his sole professional credit), and herein perhaps is the root problem. The film’s depiction of the creative process is shallow, its evocation of the various legends surrounding Hearst, Davies and Welles perfunctory. This is the kind of movie abounding in both famous and apocryphal quotes, all seemingly spoken at the same dinner party. At the same time, the film is virtually incomprehensible for anyone not familiar with the backstory. It’s both too basic and too arcane.

It’s also, ultimately, false history. The film ends with Welles falsely demanding, and getting, co-screenplay credit. For a brief period in the early 1970s, it became an article of faith that Welles’s achievement on Kane had been overrated, that Mankiewicz had conceptualized all of the film’s structural and technical innovations. Kael’s famous speculative essay Raising Kane (1971) suggested that Welles was a charming charlatan, building on the achievements of others. This point of view was firmly debunked with solid scholarship over 40 years ago. Welles did indeed conceptualize virtually all of Kane’s innovations in storytelling and structure. And he did indeed contribute significantly to the final screenplay. Mank’s suggestion otherwise is unfortunate.

Gary Oldman excels in the near-impossible conception of Mankiewicz that Fincher creates. There’s a scene toward the end of the film in which he must drunkenly pontificate for what seems like 15 uninterrupted, agonizing minutes at a San Simeon party, an unplayable conceit which Oldman just barely manages. Most of the critical attention has gone to Amanda Seyfried as Davies, a nominee for a Supporting Actress Oscar. Seyfried is fine, good even, but not nearly as special as the reviews indicate. Her delicate facial features and innate ability to convey practical intelligence go a long way toward building sympathy for Davies as a bemusedly self-aware character. She knows that, as the mistress of one of the richest men in the world, she’ll never be taken seriously. She’s also smart enough to appreciate that her predicament is hardly tragic, and that the judgment of posterity is out of her hands. Davies was a captivating personality, so perhaps the acclaim for Seyfried’s perfectly competent work can be attributed to the character’s inherent fascination. For Hollywood Golden Age aficionados, Mank promises to be a treasure trove, with seasoned character actors playing such famous names as Louis B. Mayer, John Houseman, David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg, George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, Norma Shearer, Upton Sinclair and more. But only Charles Dance, as a saturnine, slightly dim Hearst, registers with any dimension. The rest just seem part of the background atmosphere.
The winter season has always been the home for award-seeking films and, at this moment when most of us can’t visit actual theaters, streaming services have picked up the slack, blurring the lines between film and television. But then everything has been a bit blurry over the past twelve months. I saw both Mank and Nomadland on my (admittedly large) home theater screen and had to make allowances as both are films with powerfully visual approaches. I also saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at home, and I think this was all for the good. The esteemed theater director George C. Wolfe adapted August Wilson’s great play about the transitions in the music industry during the 1920s, as seen in an afternoon recording session in Chicago by blues singer Ma Rainey and her band. Wolfe has a big and generous sensibility, and his theater pieces can be messy, exuberant, erratic and electric all at once. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is his third feature film, and he still has not completely mastered the art of making stage language (especially the gorgeously heightened language of playwrights like Wilson) and stage images come to cinematic life. On a movie theater-sized screen, this might have proved fatal. On a home screen, the film’s tonal failings were less evident, and the focus shifted to the performances, which were all superb.

Viola Davis delivers a harrowingly decrepit, slyly vibrant Ma Rainey, the self-destructive leader of an entourage of musicians, relatives and hangers-on. Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts provide impeccable support as members of Ma’s hard-bitten band. And Chadwick Boseman, who sadly passed away last year at the age of 43, is simply electrifying as Levee, the young trumpeter who challenges Ma’s authority and seeks to usher her music, fixed in rural roots, into the urban jazz age. Boseman, who shot to international fame as Black Panther in the blockbuster superhero film of that name, reinvents the role of Levee here. Onstage, Charles S. Dutton was bearish, thunderous. Boseman’s Levee is slick, smooth, restless, an insistent advocate for change who doesn’t know or care that, in Ma, he’s facing a brick wall. The film is a great tribute to Boseman’s skill, and his performance elevates it. Wolfe may not have overcome the challenges of adapting a very poetic, theatrical work to the screen, but the powerful dazzle of Wilson’s language comes through clearly, thanks to the performers.
Conversely, The Sound of Metal, from first-time feature director Darius Marder, is intensely cinematic, utilizing every tool of the filmmaker’s art to tell the compelling story of Ruben, a young drummer in a heavy metal act who very rapidly loses his hearing. Ruben’s girlfriend and musical partner, Lou, who has recently joined him in overcoming substance abuse, helps him join a program for newly deaf and sober adults where Ruben learns sign language and lip reading. He also never gives up hope of recovering some semblance of hearing, ultimately undergoing surgery for cochlear implants, despite the disapproval of his deaf compatriots. The politics of the hearing-impaired world are rich and complicated, and Marder, with the help of his co-screenwriter and brother Abraham, explores this sphere with sensitivity and openness. The film is full of heartening scenes in which Ruben bonds with his fellow program members and especially with a class of deaf children. It also has plot turns that don’t really go anywhere, underdeveloped supporting characters, and a sequence at the end involving Lou’s father (played by the great French actor Mathieu Amalric) that does not pay off.

Still, the film is always riveting, thanks to its cinematic flair and a superb cast, including Olivia Cooke as Lou, the astonishing Paul Raci as Joe, the taciturn director of the program, and especially Riz Ahmed in an award-worthy performance as Ruben. Angry, intelligent, desperate and constantly working to maintain sobriety and a sense of Zen, Ahmed’s Ruben is in quintessential denial. He’s sure that he’s the smartest person in the room and that he has nothing to learn from a bunch of disabled people. He just needs a solution so that he can hear again. He does not recognize that “hearing” may not mean what it once did, for both technical and psychological reasons. He fights the tough but tender love from Joe and the program, fights the pity he feels from Lou and the rest of the world, and fights the limitations of technology.

All of this is conveyed in precise cinematic fashion by Marder and especially by his sound designer, Nicolas Becker. Through much of the movie, we hear the world the way that Ruben hears it. This device becomes most arresting in the scenes where Ruben receives the cochlear implants. The doctors warn him that he won’t actually be hearing; instead, electrical stimulations to his brain will convey the illusion of hearing. Becker’s design here captures, as best as we can guess, what that would sound like: a completely artificial, electronic representation of auditory reality, devoid of context, of balance, of perspective. With the implants, Ruben can pick up many words, but he finds it almost impossible to separate foreground voices from background noise, and the overtones are as present as the primary tones, creating distortions that evoke auditory vertigo. Ruben has to decide what “hearing” is going to mean for him in his future, and this struggle provides the final section of the film with its powerful engine.
In 2020, a year unlike every other, film as we know it was on hiatus. Movies that would normally thrive on big screens, with an engaged, communal audience, had to find other ways of prospering. One of my treasured movie-going experiences is seeing the first Borat movie in a crowded New York theater on its first night, the audience primed by ecstatic reviews. The constant roars of laughter were infectious, leaving us all delirious and breathless. The Borat sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, is in its own way as scabrously funny and pointed as the original, with the bonus of a spectacular supporting performance by newcomer Maria Bakalova as Borat’s daughter. But it has had to make its effect house by house, viewer by viewer, without the immeasurable help of a laughing crowd. It’s no wonder that most films have felt somewhat anemic this year; the circumstances have made them so. We can only hope that communal film-going will rebound in a post-pandemic world.