Nomadland is Deeply Moving



Directed by Chloé Zhao

Searchlight Pictures, 108 minutes, R (brief nudity, mild language)





Nomadland manages to be two seemingly incompatible things: a love letter to America and a middle digit amidst its amber waves. It may not win much come Oscar time—it is decidedly not usual Hollywood fare—but it has already carried off a fistful of prizes in every critics’ circle and film festival that have thus far weighed in.


Nomadland is cinéma vérité with a twist; much of the film is a pure documentary that is unmediated by director Chloé Zhao. We meet a lot of colorful and interesting people, most of them from the walks of life in which they actually stride. Or, perhaps, drive would be a better word. It is about real-life nomads, those individuals who, as Fern (Frances McDormand) puts it, are not homeless but houseless. They live in vans and follow both jobs and bliss. In essence, they are migrant workers.


McDormand doesn’t just play a nomad, she inhabits the role to the extent that she can’t even sleep in an actual bed. She is on the road because her husband has died and, though she’s tough as nails, she’s grieving. There’s also the fact that her town has gone out of business-—literally. She and her late husband Bo lived in Empire, Nevada. When the housing industry cratered in 2008, the demand for drywall dropped and U.S. Gypsum closed the entire company town. Imagine a scenario in which the place you lived, worked, loved, and socialized for decades becomes a ghost town overnight.


Even nomads need community and here is where the film becomes a masterful slice of cinéma vérité. We are taken to the Arizona desert where we encounter Bob Wills, who operates an actual network for nomads. Wills is equal parts motivational speaker, swap meet coordinator, support service facilitator, anti-corporation evangelist, and bear-like shoulder to lean on. Fern also befriends the grandmotherly Linda May and late-in-life Swankie, a lover of rocks and all things natural. They are both mavericks addicted to freedom of the swim-against-conformity variety. The burly 75-year-old Swankie speaks of being resigned to dying because of the wonders she has seen.


Life on the road sounds romantic, but the flip side is something Wills rails against: the nomads are poor. They work hard, mostly in jobs most of us never see. We observe Fern on the frenetically paced floor of an Amazon warehouse, shoveling mountains of beets in Nebraska, cleaning filthy bathrooms in South Dakota, and performing other menial tasks. McDormand is 63 now and we see etched on her weathered face both grit and weariness. Another friend, David (David Strathairn), is also aging—he’s 72 in life—and pathos abounds when we see him in a soda jerker paper hat flipping burgers. Linda May speaks of having worked since she was 12, but finding she was eligible for a mere $550/month in Social Security benefits. In other words,  these nomads are not the Wally Byam Club.


In The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien’s namesake tale is about what soldiers chose to heft in their field packs. Muse upon your possessions. If you lived in an Amazon-sized van, what would you actually need and what else would you try to find room to take? For sure you’d need warm sleeping gear, a cook stove, pans, clothing for all seasons, water jugs, and a large plastic bucket into which to do your business. You’d probably pack other things that you’d find you didn’t need and swap them at one of Bob’s desert gatherings. (They are akin to Burning Man for the non-moneyed set.)


Chloé Zhao’s light directorial touch hits the target better than an arsenal of big production movies. Usually there is no musical soundtrack beyond occasional mood-setting transitions. When needed, Ludovico Einaudi provides gorgeous and deeply moving filler. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is equally evocative. He allows the camera to dwell upon the vastness of the West, the sweep of an empty road, the otherworldly jaggedness of the Badlands, the glowing beauty of a desert sunset, the sheer majesty of tall, snow-covered peaks, and the absurdity of human-built “attractions.”


And let us again praise the fearless Frances McDormand. She has already won two Academy Awards and it would be a major injustice if she doesn’t win a third this year. She is indeed fearless. There are very few actresses with the moxie to appear as unglamorous as she, to float naked in a mountain creek, to sport unkempt hair, and wear nothing more elegant than a cheap loose shift and sandals. Were it up to me, this movie would sweep the Oscars. Nomadland is a stunning film that will both exhilarate and make you hug your Kleenex box. Call it down but not yet out in America.


Rob Weir  


Postscript: Some critics have compared the nomads to Dust Bowl refugees. I disagree. The latter had no choice whereas most of the first I find more analogous to the Roma. 



Blacktop Wasteland a Propulsive Novel



By S. A. Crosby

Flatiron Books, 304 pages.



Blacktop Wasteland is a propulsive novel on several levels. First, it is about race and social class, two subjects that spark. Second, its protagonist, Beauregard Montage, is addicted to fast cars. And third, because Crosby treats Beau as neither a victim nor a hero. 


Beau has three kids, 18-year-old Ariel from a youthful dalliance, and two sons, Darren and Javon with his long-term partner Kia. He has not always been a good man and on that we can blame poor parenting and racism Southern-style, the latter of which sent his 14-year-old self to five years in juvenile detention for a crime he did not commit. Nonetheless, Beau bears responsibility for subsequent forays into thievery and violence. He’s really trying to stay out of trouble because he loves Kia and his kids, but his make-it-in-America plan has a built-in limitation. Beau is really only good at one thing: cars. His Plymouth Duster, the only thing left behind when his petty criminal father fled, supplements the family income via illegal drag racing money. No one drives or fixes cars as well as Beau, who also owns a garage.


How, though, does a black man compete and pay his garage rent when some good ole’ boys open a fancier garage nearby with amenities and prices Beau can’t match? Or when his son needs braces and his mother is in a nursing home and about to be kicked out because Medicare has cut off payments because of an asset snafu? What can he do about Ariel, who doesn’t live with him, but is probably hooking and dealing drugs–not that her alcoholic mother cares one way or the other? Beau and Kia live in a trailer, so it’s not like there are piles of cash floating about, nor are there that many opportunities for a black man in a backwater Virginia town. The skinny is that if “Bug,” as his black friends call him, doesn’t come up with a windfall pretty quickly, his crumbling foundations will give way. As it is, one of his sons is drawn into the household financial crisis and not in a good way.


Despite Kia’s pleading, Beau is sorely tempted to take part in a heist–an insider job in a jewelry store–being orchestrated by white hood Ronnie Sessions. Beau doesn’t trust Ronnie, his dim-witted brother, or his partner Quan, but it can be done with Beau at the wheel of the getaway car. Rule number one in pulling a job: Don’t place your fate in the hands of people you don’t like and think are inept. Rule number two: If something is sold as dead simple, it’s usually only one of those. Blacktop Wasteland morphs from one man’s struggle to make ends meet to a crime thriller, and a very good one. To say that unexpected wrinkles occur scarcely does justice to the novel’s various folds and creases. This novel has quite a few bad guys, not to mention a few good guys who get in the way. As it has been for most of his life, Beau must ultimately depend upon himself to survive.


Crosby deftly juggles a lot of things in Blacktop Wasteland. He gives us a slice of black life set in 2012, but feels like it could have taken place 60 years earlier. It’s also about fatherhood, black support networks (shaky and legit), haunting memories, and self-awareness. Beau may wish to go straight, but deep inside suspects he may be cursed with a “propensity for violent conflict resolution,” just as his counselor in juvenile detention once proclaimed. He has good intentions, but he has killed before and has an “if necessary” view of murder, not guiding moral principles on the subject. Add the question of whether biology is destiny to Crosby’s bag of tricks, not to mention the old philosophical mindbender of whether the end justifies the means.


Blacktop Wasteland is a terrific novel, from its multivalent title to a conclusion evocative of I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” It will leave you shattered.


Rob Weir


The Assistant Needs a New Job





Directed by Kitty Green

Bleecker Street, 87 minutes, R (language)



The Assistant splashed down in the post-Harvey Weinstein Zeitgeist Sea. Because of that, it has gotten praise from MeToo and other such movements. I understand the desire to embrace such a film, but The Assistant is both dishwater dull and slow–in a geological sense. 


It follows one day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a novice junior assistant in a New York City film production company. Her job is unabated drudgery. She arises before the sun to make her way from Astoria to Manhattan. Don’t think of her duties have anything much to do with movies. At best she’s a concierge who books flights, makes sure that her boss’s limo shows up in time, or that the actress du jour is on the schedule. Most of the time she’s a factotum who makes coffee and copies, cleans the break room, and is expected to kowtow to the two male assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins), who dutifully ignore her–unless she makes a mistake. Mostly, Jane is invisible. Actors and actresses pass through the doors and dump their coats and coffee cups on her while making as little eye contact as humanly possible.


Jane gets a jolt when Sienna (Kristine Froseth) shows up from Idaho. She’s a new junior assistant and Jane senses that she’s a replacement-in-waiting. She’s pretty to Jane’s plainness and the boss has ensconced Sienna in a posh Midtown hotel. Jane musters enough courage to take her concerns to Wilcock (Matthew Macfayden), the HR director, but she can’t quite say that she thinks Sienna is there because she is the boss’s latest sexual conquest. Wilcock essentially belittles Jane and offers only the solace that she need not worry because, “You’re not his type.” When she arrives back at her desk a few minutes later, she finds that Wilcock has told everyone about her complaint.


Jane’s day ends as it began–in darkness. She’s so wiped she nearly falls asleep at a coffee shop and she doesn’t have the energy to take more than a few nibbles from a muffin. We sense that she’s on borrowed time, but I will confess that I wondered why she was in her job in the first place. Jane has the courage of a timid little mouse. Everything about her seems wrong–her belief that within five years she’d be a producer, her clothing, and for sure her low-key personality. It’s as if she never got the memo that, even were your boss not a monster, New York is a tough town. The boss never actually appears on screen–we hear only his voice on the telephone dropping a few F-bombs–and see his silhouette in a window as he and Sienna are presumably having it off. His physical absence is a nice touch that enhances the existential dread hovering over Jane. Beyond this, however, The Assistant plays like a rejected script for The Office.


Garner’s affect is so flat that we want to hug her and tell her it’s okay to back home–presumably the Midwest as she’s a Northwestern grad–to her loving and supportive parents. Or maybe take a job in a library that’s more befitting for quiet people such as she. After all, it’s not as if New York will magically become more accommodating with a better boss and coworkers.


Make no mistake, those coworkers are complete jerks. They are the sort who smirk at Jane and inwardly revel when she is called on the carpet for doing tasks that they dumped on her. But here is where The Assistant falls apart. Much more needs to happen for this to fit the profile of now labeled the Weinstein effect. This film is not really about sexual predation. We only know that Jane suspects that Sienna is a victim. Why? Because she’s from Idaho? Because the boss cheats on his wife? All we know for certain is that nearly everyone who comes through the door is quisquous and self-absorbed. This makes the production office a toxic workplace for all underlings. It’s what we get because we knee-capped labor unions that mediated against abuses of power.


The Assistant is thus a drab office drama sans any actual drama. The few outside shots have Hopperesque qualities that convey Jane’s anomie more effectively than the claustrophobia of the office. But none of this changes the fact that the creepiness of The Assistant is too mannered to pack a wallop. We need a good film about the Weinstein effect, but this isn’t it.


Rob Weir