NOMADLAND (2021)

February 20, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Traditional beauty is nowhere to be found in filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s extraordinary film adapted (by Ms. Zhao) from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 award-winning book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”. There are no breathtaking shots of majestic sites like the Grand Canyon, and the people we meet rarely bathe, and are not concerned with fashion. Despite this, the film can best be described as one of the most beautiful and most unique cinema experiences in years. Ms. Zhao provides a look at America’s roads and landscape through the eyes of folks that society tends to overlook.

A significant reason this film works is the incredible performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (FARGO, 1996, and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, 2017). She plays Fern, a strong woman who refuses to let grief suffocate her. Her hometown of Empire, Nevada was erased from existence in 2011 when US Gypsum shut down the local plant, resulting in the town’s zip code being discontinued a few months later. As if her town disappearing wasn’t enough, Fern’s husband passed away, leaving her with little evidence of a life to which she had grown accustomed. We watch as Fern packs up her van and hits the road.

Her first stop is working at an Amazon distribution center during the holiday rush season. She lives out of her van as part of the company-sponsored CamperForce program. When the season is over, Fern hits the road again. We slowly get a feel for this subculture of van-dwelling nomads, young and old, who travel the country’s backroads and keep to themselves, except when they gather to form a temporary community of similar-minded individuals. Fern makes it clear she is “house-less”, not “homeless”, and has nicknamed her customized vehicle, ‘Vanguard’.

Fern thrives on her solitude, but is also friendly enough to connect with others wherever she stops driving or works. She joins the annual gathering of Bob Wells’ community/tribe, and her other odd jobs include acting as a “host” at one of the stops, shoveling sugar beets at a farm, and cooking/cleaning/serving at the famous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota. Along the way she befriends Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow nomad whose dreams don’t necessarily coincide with Ferns. Respected actor Strathairn is the only other familiar face in the film, other than McDormand. Non-professional actors fill the scenes, most of whom are real life nomads kind enough to share their ways in front of a camera.

Director Zhao has reunited with Joshua James Richards, her cinematographer on the excellent 2017 film, THE RIDER. Their work here is a masterclass in taking us into a world most of us know little about, and doing so in a way that combines both the intimacy of people with the scale of nature. Even the sequence where Fern revisits her past life is quietly emotional and done with grace, while also packing a punch. The music from Ludovico Einaudi is exceptional in its complementary nature and ability to leave the quiet moments unspoiled, while also driving our empathy and emotions. This is an extraordinary film with a superb performance, and one that is entertaining, while also proving thought-provoking at a time when so many of us are questioning the sustainability of our current societal structure, and wondering just who will toss a rock on the fire in remembrance.

In theatres and PVOD on Hulu beginning February 19, 2020

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE RIDER (2018)

April 26, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the universe creates its own balance. Watching this little independent gem the day before watching the new Avengers movie reinforces what a diverse art form the cinema provides. Writer/director Chloe Zhao continues to make her presence felt as a filmmaker, and movie lovers are the beneficiaries.

While filming her feature film debut SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2015, Ms. Zhao met Brady Jandreau, a rising young star on the rodeo circuit. She knew a movie was in their future, but it wasn’t until the following year when the story wrote itself. Brady suffered a severe head injury after being bucked by a bronco. He was in a coma for 3 days, and a metal plate was screwed into his skull. Doctors warned Brady that riding a horse again could kill him.

This is not a documentary, but it’s pretty darn close. Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a rodeo bronco rider and horse trainer who is recovering from a severe head injury. Mr. Landreau’s real father Tim and sister Lilly also appear as themselves. In fact, most of the characters are locals rather than actors, and many (including the Jandreaus) are part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe on the reservation. Also playing himself is Lane Scott, Brady’s best friend who is now paralyzed and unable to speak – the tragic result of another rodeo ride gone wrong. These two are like brothers, and their interactions provide some of the most emotional moments in the movie.

The film is more cycle of life, than circle of life. It’s about having a lifelong dream snatched from your clutches. We follow Brady as he searches for his new place in life. Campfire confessions with his rodeo buddies portray the bond created by risking life and limb. His mother is dead, and Brady’s dad has spent a lifetime telling him to “cowboy up” – meaning, be a man and fight through every situation. Now dad is telling him to “let it go” and “move on”. This contradicts his friends who encourage him to not give up on his dream.

Brady’s moments with his sister Lilly are some of the sweetest and most poignant. Despite her autism, Lilly is precious as she sings songs and offers clear insight to her brother. This is less about acting and more about being. Guns, horses, and pot play significant roles throughout, as does the stunning South Dakota landscape as photographed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The intimacy of Brady’s internal struggle somehow dwarfs the breathtaking sunsets. His quietly simmering intensity is masked by a stone face that only seems to brighten when around friend Lane, sister Lilly, or training yet another “unbreakable” horse.

Rather than traditional story arc, this is simply a compelling way of life for people who put up no false fronts. Brady is trying to figure out how to be a man after life has stolen his dream. One’s purpose is essential to one’s being, and thanks to filmmaker Zhao we witness how one tough cowboy fights through.

watch the trailer: