Good and bad seem to be out of fashion; these days, it’s all about better and worse. The new president is praised for being better than the Antichrist. Wage slavery is praised for existing at all, because any job is better than no job, and $15 an hour is better than $7.25. In a bizarre twist, the early 2010s are now remembered as a time far better than our own: a tenth of the country was out of work, but at least you could go home with a stranger you’d met at a bar without risking death by respiratory failure.
The Oscars (which air April 25, if you’re into that kind of thing) are the quintessence of better and worse. An Oscarbait movie is a movie nobody thinks is good but which is generally considered better than others — thus, drama is better than comedy, period settings are better than contemporary ones, realism is better than avant-gardism, blunt political relevance is better than anything, etc. I was reminded of this a few days ago when a “For Your Consideration” ad crept into my phone. It’s Oscar season 2021: not a good time, but a step up from a year ago.
The “For Your Consideration” ad was for “Nomadland,” a drama directed by Chloé Zhao that, for lack of any real competition, has become this year’s Oscar frontrunner. It stars Frances McDormand, already twice-garlanded, with stolid support from the character actor David Strathairn, who has been famous for the last fifteen years for not being garlanded enough. McDormand, who co-produced the film with Zhao, plays Fern, a woman on the precipice of old age who chooses to buy a van and roam around the country in search of community and work.
The themes of “Nomadland” (capitalist decline, the precarity of employment, bourgeois shallowness, feminist liberation) are plenty weighty, and it pulls off the fine Oscars feat of being politically relevant and a period piece — it’s set in 2011, in the thick of the Great Recession. It was filmed in 2018 but anticipates our current, perverse wave of 2010s nostalgia: you watch and yearn for the days when it was safe to squeeze David Strathairn’s hand without soaking your own in sanitizer afterwards.
COVID quarantiners have had an easy time projecting their longings onto Zhao’s feature, I think, because the longing tone was there to begin with. There exists a whole tradition of films (off the top of my head: “Something Wild,” “They Live by Night,” “Gun Crazy,” “Kings of the Road,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Badlands,” “American Honey”) that convey something of the romance of the open road without skimping on the tedium and terror that accompany it.
Nomadland” is not one of these. The biggest spot of bother Fern finds herself in is changing a flat tire. When she gigs for Amazon, the warehouse is dressed in the same bokeh mist as everything else, and in general, scenes of work are snipped within half an inch of nothingness. On the other hand, Zhao never includes a nice shot of the desert without throwing in five more, usually ending on a closeup of McDormand looking exactly the way people are supposed to look when they’re having a profound experience. The implication, intentional or not, is that nomadic gig-worker life mostly consists of squinting wisely at Mother Nature, the actual work an occasional necessity, when common sense and arithmetic suggest the opposite.
All the same, this is not a typical Oscar season, and “Nomadland” is not typical Oscarbait. If it wins the top prize, it will almost certainly be the first film with significant documentary elements to do so. Save for McDormand and Strathairn, the cast consists mostly of nomads playing unvarnished versions of themselves — the only analogue from a Best Picture winner that comes to mind is Harold Russell in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” but that was one role out of many. Here, real-life nomads outnumber the professionals. The two standouts are Bob Wells, environmentalist and YouTube proselytizer for RV living, and Swankie, a woman in her mid-70s who tells Fern about her decision to hit the road after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She describes kayaking through Colorado as a younger woman and remembers thinking, “If I died right then, that moment, it’d be perfectly fine.” It’s a brazenly, gloriously amateurish speech — not a single wise squint or careful pause — and it leaves McDormand’s actorly refinement in the dust.
Years from now, historians will wonder how the same culture that made a cult of authenticity also paid to watch Amy Adams impersonate a hillbilly. The difference between Adams in “Hillbilly Elegy” and Swankie here isn’t inauthentic versus authentic so much as a default aesthetic (mop wigs, makeup, millionaires) versus one that’s been fitted to the needs of the story. When Swankie starts to speak, it doesn’t feel like an experiment or a directorial flourish — it feels like the right form for the content. We need more moments like this in our movies, not just our documentaries, and for that reason alone, I hope “Nomadland” nabs more awards.
Praising Zhao for using nonprofessional actors is like blowing on a little spark in the middle of a cold, dead firepit — I want it to grow into something but can’t deny it’s only a spark. “Nomadland” has been compared to John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), insofar as it’s about migrant workers muddling through a nasty economy, but watching the two films back-to-back does Zhao no favors. Ford was a sentimental director telling a story for an audience trained to expect sentimentality, but when “The Man” comes to repossess the Okies’ farmland, Ford makes time for the following exchange (lifted, it’s worth noting, almost word-for-word from John Steinbeck’s novel):
MULEY: The chillun ain’t gettin’ enough to eat as it is, and they’re so ragged we’d be shamed if ever’body else’s chillun wasn’t the same way.
THE MAN: I can’t help that. All I know is I got my orders. They told me to tell you you got to get off, and that’s what I’m telling you.
MULEY: You mean get off my own land?
THE MAN: Now don’t go blaming me. It ain’t my fault.
SON: Whose fault is it?
THE MAN: You know who owns the land — the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.
MULEY: Who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Comp’ny?
THE MAN: It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.
SON: They got a pres’dent, ain’t they? They got somebody that knows what a shotgun’s for, ain’t they?
THE MAN: But it ain’t his fault, because the bank tells him what to do.
There may be Hollywood films that do a better job of showing how capitalism turns people into monsters, but I really can’t think of any.
Zhao’s screenplay was also adapted from a book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” by the journalist Jessica Bruder. Bruder devoted many pages to the injuries sustained by gig workers in Amazon warehouses and quoted one worker’s claim that Amazon was “the biggest slave owner in the world.” Mysteriously, none of this survived the long journey from page to screen, an omission I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with the deal Zhao and McDormand struck with Amazon VP Jeff Blackburn allowing them to shoot on company property. Superficial authenticity made another, deeper form of authenticity impossible — not that the producers were sorry to bid the latter one adieu. “We are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work,” McDormand told The Hollywood Reporter, “and working at the Amazon fulfillment center is hard work, but it pays a wage.”
This is all embarrassing and disturbing, especially for a movie that presents itself as sticking up for the little guy, but it doesn’t ipso facto make that movie bad. (On a similar note, Zhao has taken some flak for being the child of a steel tycoon, but if Luchino Visconti could make “La Terra Trema,” I’ll defend her right to make a film about the working class). What does make “Nomadland” bad, or at any rate forgettable, is its disinterest in the grit and grain of nomadic life, of which the sparkling, well-paying Amazon fulfillment centers are merely a symptom. In one of Bob Wells’ early scenes, he’s teaching a group about “the ten commandments of stealth parking” — but, as Richard Brody complains in his review for The New Yorker, “the scene cuts out before he even delivers the first of them.”
“Nomadland” has been praised for its “unflinching realism” — fair if the competition is “Sonic the Hedgehog,” less so if you’ve seen Agnés Varda’s chilling, wrenching “Vagabond.” Where Varda pointedly refuses to reduce her nomadic heroine to a set of influences, Zhao does everything short of pinning Fern to a wall. As we find out near the film’s end, the reason Fern became a nomad (her origin story, you could almost say) is that her husband died and she lost her job — no further questions! The film’s view of human nature is as plastic-smooth as its view of itinerant work: every event has a clear-cut cause, every scene has a magic-hour shimmer, and any detail or lingering complexity is briskly sanded away. Swankie’s monologue shouldn’t be denied its solemn power, but the rest is sugar. Only fair, then, that “Nomadland” ends with a drippy dedication to “the ones who had to depart” — or that Zhao’s next project is a Marvel movie. Hard work, no doubt, but it pays a wage.
I believe I’ve made it clear I don’t think Nomadland is the best movie of 2020. For that matter, it’s not even the best hybrid fiction-documentary road movie about the decline of contemporary American society. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” directed by Jason Woliner — let’s just call it “Borat 2” — is a country mile from perfect. But what filmmaker in A.D. 2020 would travel across Yoo-Ess-and-Ay and think of perfection?
Another way of putting this is that “Borat 2” and “Nomadland” set themselves pretty much the same challenge — use a combination of fiction and non-fiction storytelling techniques to say something worthwhile about an era in which fiction often melts into non-fiction — but only “Borat 2” succeeds. This is so, I think, because “Borat 2” understands three things “Nomadland” fundamentally does not get:
1) A movie that aims to provide a panoramic view of contemporary America is necessarily an uncomfortable movie — sick, embarrassing, weird, cringey, and so on.
2) Uncomfortable things naturally lend themselves to comedy (or horror — and there is plenty of horror in “Borat 2”).
3) In present-day America, far, far away from the forest city of a major country, the strongest forms of comedy are observational (and not satirical).
Much as the most striking performer in “Nomadland” is an elderly woman who’s never been in a movie and never will be again, the funniest people in Borat 2 are non-comedians who believe that, oh I dunno, Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of babies, or women should date rich old men who’ve had at least one heart attack. The difference is that “Nomadland” is always interrupting its nonprofessionals in mid-sentence, whereas “Borat 2” seems reluctant to miss one freakish second. I’m not saying a speech about infant cannibalism is more representative of the American character than a speech about the ten commandments of stealth parking, but at least “Borat 2” lets me hear the whole speech.
If you’ve spent the last twenty years in a monastery, here’s what you need to know. In the early 2000s, there was a very funny man named Sacha Baron Cohen who had an HBO show which involved him dressing up as a Kazakh journalist named Borat Sagdiyev and interviewing clueless Americans — mostly hicks and politicians. In 2006, this man turned his Borat routine into a feature film that certain people, particularly those who were in middle school at the time, experienced as something between a UFO-sighting and a religious epiphany. For the next decade and a half, this Mr. Baron Cohen would turn in various performances that were, in various ways, disappointments — but how else do you follow an epiphany? And last year, he came back with more Borat: vocal cords a little stiffer with age, ditto the physical comedy, but otherwise the same routines, held together by the flimsiest plot since … the first Borat movie.
“Much had changed I was last in US&A,” Borat informs us early on. Those hicks and politicians, who sometimes came off like sitting ducks on HBO, are back and bigger than ever, whatever manners they had during the Bush years eroded by years of social media and Tea Partying. Writing for Slate in 2006, Christopher Hitchens thought Borat’s interviews demonstrated that the American people were among the kindest and most tolerant in the world — probably the most egregiously wrong “take” the man ever had. Christopher Hitchens, you may recall, also believed that women aren’t funny and the Iraq War was a terrific idea.
Kindness or tolerance are in short supply this time around. The Giuliani interview, with its back-pats and shirt-tucks, has gotten most of the attention; considerably worse is the preceding scene, in which Baron Cohen gets a pack of Washington-marchers to chant about beheading Fauci and giving Obama COVID-19. There were similar scenes in the Bush-era HBO show; the difference is those bigots seemed sedentarily harmless, while the Trump-era versions carry shotguns. “Borat 2” explores every level of American dim-wittedness — a Steinbeckian loop in which nobody’s responsible and everybody’s guilty. Thus, the anti-maskers just do what the Republicans tell them. But it ain’t their fault, because QAnon tells them what to do …
As always, it’s shocking how little Baron Cohen does, how slight a nudge it takes to get his interviewees rolling downhill. It’s terrifying to watch and — not but — funnier than anything I’ve seen in a movie in some time, and as such, it has absolutely no chance of winning the Oscar. Not that that means much: if we’re to trust the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the defining American film of 2004 was something called “Million Dollar Baby.” Another film from the same year, “Team America: World Police,” wasn’t even nominated, but I know which one people will still be watching twenty-five years from now. I was going to finish by thanking Baron Cohen for making an audacious movie for an audacious year, but I’ll go a step further: if Academy voters are thinking of awarding “Nomadland” the top prize, they should say no, for once, to phony liberal politesse and give the damn thing to “Borat 2.”
Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.