All I Want February 23, 2021
On Nomadland, I Care a Lot, and Saint Maud
ern loved the house she used to live in. It was in Empire, Nev. — one of those minuscule factory towns where everybody who lived there was employed
by the same company and where everybody knew each other. (Empire’s population maxed out in the early 1960s at 750 residents.) Views from Fern’s backyard were expansive; she always felt like there wasn’t anything in her way, even if she was tethered to a job and a husband.
Everything slipped from Fern’s hands — that beloved house along with her job, sense of community, and marriage — in 2011. That year, Fern was hit with two tragedies in close proximity to each other: the death of her husband, Bo, after a long illness; what amounted to a full-on shutdown of Empire (its zip code was actually canceled) after the U.S. Gypsum factory plant which kept it alive closed its doors amid Recession-related
struggles. Rather than try to find a new place on which to settle, Fern, who is in her early 60s, has been living on the road ever since. She takes seasonal work at Amazon fulfillment centers as part of the corporation's CamperForce program (which exists to give vagabonds a place to fall back on if they don't have any other options for temporary work) to get by. Otherwise, Fern spends most of her time traversing the states in an appropriately refurbished van.
In an early scene in Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s moving new movie, Fern (a never-better Frances McDormand) moseys around a local sporting-goods store mostly because it’s cold out. There she runs into an old acquaintance, who expresses some concern about Fern's homelessness. She offers her a place to stay. But Fern makes some distinctions. She is not without a home — she’s actually houseless, she notes — nor is she in need of a rescue. Hers is a chosen, not flatly circumstantial, kind of itinerancy. “Don’t worry about me,” Fern says. “I’m OK.”
Later, Fern meets a woman named Linda May at a new Amazon gig. (Linda is one of many non-professional actors playing a fictionalized version of themselves in the film.) Linda, who too lives on the road, invites Fern to come with her to Arizona for an event organized by Bob Wells (also playing a version of himself), a media personality who has gained notoriety over the years as an unofficial leader for those who have chosen a nomadic way of life. (His popular YouTube channel, CheapRVliving, culls together various tips and tricks to effectively sustain an always-roving life.) The Arizona event — the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous — works to bring together committed travelers to help provide a sense of community. It’s through this gathering that Fern finds some of the closest connections she’s had in years. Not just with the warm Linda May but also the 75-year-old Swankie (another nomad playing themselves), who is terminally ill and as one last hurrah plans to travel to Alaska to recapture some fond childhood memories, and with David (David Strathairn), a man who is a little older than Fern who, like her, seems to be on a perhaps subconscious search for a nebulous “something more.”
As it was with Zhao’s last movie, 2018’s great, largely biographical The Rider, Nomadland doesn’t seem to have any lofty ambitions. It without too much adornment seeks to take us on an emotional journey — get us wrapped up in the film on account of caring about, and wanting to get to better know, a compelling and sympathetic person who is trying to pick up life’s pieces in the wake of life-shattering change. (In that earlier movie, we watched as a rising rodeo star, 20-something-year-old Brady, tried to carry on after suffering a horse-riding accident that essentially put the kibosh on his budding career.)
Zhao, who also wrote Nomadland, unhurriedly evinces Fern’s backstory. We don’t know, until the end of the film, what her life concretely was like before she got to her new reality and what she thought about it. (We get glimpses of the past as she nostalgically thumbs through old polaroids in bed one evening; she can’t help but grin thinking about old times.) But in tandem with McDormand’s subtly emotionally fractured work, the filmmaker’s conspicuous compassion makes us quickly care about how Fern got here, and whether she intends to find something conclusive from her incessant traveling. We don’t need to know everything from the outset; we don’t need to know everything generally, we find, to get pulled in.
Working off Jessica Bruder’s acclaimed 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century as its foundation, Nomadland also uses the fictional Fern as a conduit for us to get to know at least a portion of the people who belong to the traveling milieu with which she crosses paths. Like Fern, most people who belong to it are close to or past retirement age; post-Great Recession, they didn’t have the means to finitely hang up their work clothes. (Linda May notes early on that when she was ready to retire she discovered that her Social Security account had only accrued some $550 in all her years of working.) And so, as a way to ostensibly find a sliver of autonomy through untetheredness (and space to give commonly experienced personal loss room to breathe), these people have taken to the road — also a mechanism to in part keep off “the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar,” as Wells puts it at one point.
Surprisingly, Nomadland isn’t outrightly condemnatory of the capitalistic failures that have put people like Fern in this position. Even Amazon, infamous for its dehumanizing treatment of its workers, is almost neutrally positioned — like it’s just another place to work. This shouldn’t suggest that Nomadland is altogether apolitical, although the shrug it gives Amazon (and some of the other jobs its characters take) rings falsely. In a movie that is otherwise committed to authenticity, why portray an infamously grinding workplace as something more innocuous? (One assumes this is because Amazon attached some caveats when it permitted Zhao and her crew to enter its floors, which mucks up some of the film's sense of integrity — like it is committed to being honest about some things but not others.)
Zhao nonetheless predominantly understands the power of
showing without explicitly telling. That criticism is more subliminal than clear-cut seems a pointed choice to reinforce humanity — a very intentional narrative decision by Zhao to steer clear of rendering someone a symbol or breathing ramification of systemic inadequacy. The movie fortifies some of the old-fashioned appeal of unmooring yourself from a predictable routine to get better acquainted with the world around you. Sometimes the photography, done by Zhao's partner and frequent collaborator Joshua James Richards, has a pretty pastoralism. (One shot of Fern winkingly references one found in the 1956 Western The Searchers.) But just because Nomadland has moments of unvarnished visual and emotional beauty doesn't mean it's disproportionately idealized. While it arguably stumbles in its framing of gig work (which a recent Vulture piece insightfully delved into), it doesn't altogether quash the realities that have driven people to the exploration portrayed or the general precarity of the American dream.
During scenes more focused on capturing the essence of the central milieu and its handful of real-life participants, I thought that as fond as I was of Nomadland, I might have liked to see Zhao simply make a documentary on the film's primary subject. Equal parts curious and sensitive, her work doesn’t bear feelings of condescension or a rush to find a "conclusion" one might associate with parachute-style journalism. She's empathetic and tactful. As good as McDormand and Strathairn are, Nomadland doesn’t totally cohere when they’re acting alongside the people for whom nomadic living is the reality. In these moments I felt as though I was watching two movies — one a character study about a woman adrift and one an engaging and assiduously made documentary about people operating within a subculture.
But this is just one gripe in one of the finer movies of the last year. This is a film that makes you more appreciative of what you have and have had without being precious, that captures acutely the sadness and exhaustion of pushing ahead in an unsentimental world without being unduly funereal. Nomadland is as hopeful as it is melancholy. It finds a subversive joy in pushing against an unsatisfying fate — the idea that one’s life doesn’t have to metaphorically end before it literally does. “One of the things I love most about this life is that there's no final goodbye,” Wells says to Fern toward the end of the film. “You know, I've met hundreds of people out here and I don't ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I'll see you down the road.’ And I do.”
Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
here’s two types of people in this world,” Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), the anti-heroine of J Blakeson’s tart new thriller I Care a Lot, says at the beginning of the movie through voiceover. “The
people who take and those getting took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs.” Grayson, she tells us, was at one point in her life poor (it’s one of basically zero details we’ll learn about her background in the course of the movie), and she knows by now that being poor isn’t something that agrees with her. Well-aware that not simple financial comfort but fuck-you levels of wealth is what best suits her, Grayson decided some time ago that she wanted to be the one who takes, who preys, who stalks around hungrily like a lion. (Actually, call her a lioness, she clarifies.)
So how does Grayson make a living? A proponent of what can only be classified as dizzyingly ambitious con-artistry, Grayson's current scheme is so dastardly — so indicative of what must be sociopathy — that we could do a spit take. (It's also so convoluted that it's more than a little hard to believe.) Grayson works professionally as a legal guardian for elderly people who cannot take care of themselves. But she perverts the system in order to target those who have more rewarding assets for her to seize and fewer suspicious family members to stand in her way. She’ll suffocate her latest victim in a fog of legal jargon during an unannounced visit, force them into a rest home, and take away their cell phone. Then she’ll sell a mark’s house and hawk their belongings before they can so much as process what has happened to them. She takes until she can't anymore; as far as we know there haven't been any very big bumps in the road, aside from a pissed-off relative or two.
Grayson’s been getting away with it with the help of a corrupted doctor (Alicia Witt), a research assistant who is also her lover (Eiza González), a smattering of people at the local rest home, and a judge (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who isn’t actually part of the scheme but might as well be. (He’s so reliably won over by Grayson’s feigned compassion in the courtroom that he can be depended on to side with her if a disgruntled family member catches on to what this woman is up to and wants to protest.) This judge can’t see the way we can that just how Grayson prefers to present herself on the stand is very indicative of her snakiness. Her favored red lipstick suggests she’s recently feasted on blood, and her frighteningly straight bob (its edges are so sharp they could potentially slit a naked throat) recalls the outstretched hood of a cobra ready to strike.
Inevitably in I Care a Lot, Grayson’s well-thought-out and frankly unbelievably long-running racket hits a snag with her latest target — a 70-something named Jennifer (Dianne Wiest) who at first seems too good to be true. (She’s a “cherry” — Grayson's preferred billing for a mark that doesn’t seem to have any family at all and who has the most goods to cash in on.) Would a labyrinthine thriller like this one need to exist if all went according to plan? It soon transpires that Jennifer isn’t entirely who she says she is — or whom Grayson and co. think she is, since they never allow her to really speak around them — and has powerful (and unafraid-to-be-violent) connections. Has karma thrown Jennifer’s name — if that is her name — into Grayson’s proverbial hat to teach her a lesson?
It seems like a wonder at first that Grayson doesn’t cower in fear when Jennifer warns her that “I’m the worst mistake you’ll ever make" a little after she gets a hint of the storm to come by a threatening man who waltzes into her office one afternoon. But then we come to realize that Grayson, in addition to being devoid of any human compassion, doesn’t fear anything very much. Grayson has beautiful white teeth, and one of my favorite things about the movie is seeing Pike show them off at the most wildly inappropriate of times to drill in her vileness. A grin is not deployed to show warmth but seal in a particularly nasty sentence’s toxicant. Miraculously, Grayson's smile seems to get even bigger once she’s found out about Jennifer's ties. When menaced, she doesn't shrink herself. Instead she confidently flashes her pearly canines and asks for a six-digit payoff. Grayson would rather die than pass up a great opportunity to make more money.
One of the pleasures of this thoroughly noxious — and I think increasingly implausible — movie is finding out how the apparently amoral Grayson will respond to a new batch of improbably dangerous stakes. (Besides the not-as-helpless-as-she-seems Jennifer, there aren’t any characters to conventionally root for in I Care a Lot; the cast is rounded out by a disconcertingly calm Peter Dinklage and an enjoyably devilish, perennially zoot-suited Chris Messina, who are both Team Jennifer.) This is not a thriller in which much time is spent by characters we grow fond of fighting against evil, as is the genre norm. It’s one that instead watches as well-dressed people obliquely fight tooth and nail for it. I Care a Lot is built on showing off, not imparting affecting truths. I didn't mind that its entertainingly busy and far-fetched narrative smushed anything resembling interiorly rich characterizations or general nuance. I just wanted to see where it was all going to end up.
Fear not — Blakeson isn’t on his heroine’s side in any way (I think it’s pointed that she doesn’t get any sort of sympathetic backstory). And the movie’s aim, if a little ham-fistedly execution-wise, is to indict the callousness of late
capitalism and how legal systems are augmented for one’s personal gain all the time. (Grayson’s frequent — and misguided — invocations of gender also felt to me like marked eyebrow-raises at some of the tenets of popular girlboss thinking.) Some critics have christened the movie a black comedy, but I don’t think that’s that accurate. I Care a Lot doesn't appear to be looking for laughs. It has a similar lift to a comedy; it moves at a fast pace, the dialogue has a showy snap, and its characters are caricatured (they're all unsubtle variations on foulness). But this is more a caper featuring overly self-satisfied people whose almost cartoonishly gleeful determination to get what they want could be mistaken for dark humor.
I Care a Lot is a thriller in the Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) mode. It features a criminal lead who is so competently sinful that a part of us, deep down, wants them to avoid capture just a little longer so we can be entertained by new ways in which they’ll stealthily outmaneuver seizure. Naturally one’s enjoyment of I Care a Lot is pretty dependent on how much pleasure one can derive — and how much awfulness one can stomach — from a movie where moral clarity to grab on to is in dangerously short supply. But I found quite a bit of pleasure in I Care a Lot, most of it coming from Pike. She’s so good at playing committedly frosty (it’s why her most famous role, viper Amy Dunne from 2014’s Gone Girl, remains among the most indelible movie villains of the last 20 years) that I couldn’t help myself from caring about how she was going to keep maintaining her cool.
n Saint Maud, the title character — a former hospice nurse (Morfydd Clark) — has a dialogue going on with God almost all the time. “He’s everywhere; He sees you,” she explains when someone asks about their
relationship. “Most of the time, it’s just like He’s physically in me or around me. It’s how He guides me. Like, when He’s pleased, it’s like a shiver. Or sometimes it’s like a pulsing, and it’s all warm and good. He’s just there.”
Much of the film’s narrative — and development of Maud’s personhood — is guided by the character’s prayers, which frequently play over the action like a voiceover. We quickly infer that the movie is not going to be a straightforwardly touching story about a young woman's spiritual devotion. When Maud says during one prayer, “I can’t shake the feeling that you must have saved me for something greater than this,” it doesn’t sound to us like someone indirectly asking for God’s help to guide them through an existential crisis. Is this verbal foreshadowing for a film that will find someone’s loyalty to their God evolve into destructive action? Maud often acts like someone is in the room with her even when she appears to be alone. But we can’t be too sure while watching this ominously shot movie whether this presence is indeed God, a masquerading evil spirit, Maud’s delusions tricking her, or simply our heroine trying to will something greater than herself into existence.
Marking the feature directing debut of British filmmaker Rose Glass, Saint Maud could be considered a scion of unsettling horror movies like Repulsion (1965) or Possession (1981), films in which the bulk of the film’s action revolved around the declining mental well-being of the main woman protagonist. In Maud’s case, this decline is sped up when she begins to work as the private nurse of Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a terminally ill dancer and choreographer who has decided to spend her final days in her secluded beachside vacation home in Scarborough. Maud and Amanda both immediately think they might be able to spiritually help each other out. Maud believes she can “save” Amanda, who in the last period of her short life still enjoys partying and casual flings, before it’s too late. Amanda in turn thinks that she can get the increasingly zealous Maud to loosen up a little bit — enjoy her 20s for all they’re worth.
But Maud will only get more vehemently devoted to — and more delusional about her relationship with — God. (We learn that her “awakening” came only a few years ago, apparently brought on by the trauma of accidentally precipitating an elderly patient’s death.) The movie’s first half suggests a potential descent into Misery (1990) territory, where a struggle for the upper hand between an isolated and vulnerable patient and their caregiver quickly turns violent. But while the film predictably ends horrifically, the driving dynamic isn't so cut-and-dried; Maud is experiencing something a bit different than the sledgehammer-happy Annie Wilkes. She could be better compared to Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle, a character whose constant solitariness, never-endingly unsuccessful bids to “fit in,” and fuzzy sense of self eventually lead to a ruinous catharsis.
Saint Maud was supposed to come out earlier (production lasted for about three weeks toward the end of 2018) but is just now seeing the light of day in the U.S. after multiple delays. Its narrative — fundamentally about a young health care worker struggling to cope with the traumas inherent to her career — has inadvertently gotten a new urgency because of those delays, being released in a world where nurses are being spread thinner than ever and made to work under particularly fraught circumstances. Glass doesn’t have any trouble making this movie immediately unnerving — the trauma and isolation whittling Maud down feel tangible enough to almost be one with the set design. And Clark’s performance has a hair-raising intensity we expect to unravel at any moment. She suggests barely controlled chaos.
But there’s something about this meticulously made and acted movie that feels a little too worked out — too inevitable to keep you consistently scared. (You’re more rattled by the anticipation of what’s going to happen than by surprise, and I think that in a horror movie — particularly one that is as aesthetically and technically a cut above its peers as Saint Maud is — an element of unpredictability is an essential rather than optional.) Still, you finish the movie excited for where Glass is going to go next. Even if the movie’s storyline deviates little from its spiritually similar antecedents, she so astutely captures the immediate interior life and progressively agitated point of view of her lead that it’s clear she’s on track to potentially become one of the next great horror filmmakers. She doesn't have any trouble generating unease.
I Care a Lot: B
Saint Maud: B