A look back at the post-crash economic suffering of the Obama era, which feels barely a day away from the current multitude of crises. Chloe Zhao's Nomadland is a much more existential road movie than a social treatise. As the story teaches the American worker something new about the wretched condition, the story pursues an introspective quest dramatized against the glorious, wide-open horizons of the American West.
The film is the odyssey of a Nevada woman who loses her home and takes to the streets after her city's plaster mine closes. It fits loosely into a work that includes both fiction and non-fiction. Lines Zhao handily spans: The Florida Project, American Honey, American Factory, Bombay Beach, and other endeavors whose narratives are underpinned by economic instability and limited options as the screen is filled with local color, regional specificity, and immense amounts of heart .
The film – one of the highlights of this year's largely virtual New York Film Festival – marked Zhao's return to the prestigious Main Slate, where she bowed in 2017 with The Rider, her second film that featured real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau as an aspiring rodeo champion, who has problems after a brain injury makes further competition too risky. Nomadland is expanding its reach. In the adaptation of Jessica Brother's Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, Zhao Fern (Frances McDormand), a fictional character, inserts travelers into a tableau of contemporary nomads, who live in their mobile homes while they are between temporary, often seasonal, occupation and Corral change ad hoc communities on the late capitalist frontier. (Brother worked with filmmaker Brett Story on the documentary CamperForce in 2017 for Field of Vision.) As such, much of the cast is non-professional, in some cases jumping out of Brother's reportage onto the screen, where they embody themselves with touching grace and resilient spirit. Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells – whose YouTube channel made him a national icon of the nomadic movement – lead Fran with salt and tenderness into their brave new world. Perhaps it's Zhao's mature touch, or the ease with which the on-camera cast, but the awkwardness (albeit adorable) that characterized The Rider's non-professional appearances subsides here.
McDormand's performance, which depicts as much brooding inwardness as Fran's uncertain path ahead of her, is the unvarnished, flimsy thing that Oscar nominations are made of, and the mutual intensity of focus she shares with Zhao joins the smallest details. It's a story of “how” and “why,” and the way scenes are composed of the smallest moments, looks, tasks, and the broadest canvas of creation is a miracle. The only misstep for me is the music that comes from recordings by the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi and evokes the emotions we are already feeling.
Not quite your father's NYFF this year, the Main Slate voted back some of the predictable (and predictably male) European writers with a long history – even the satirical poster by John Waters made it clear that Jean-Luc Godard was absent (no new film, but still) – to welcome several women filmmakers on board for the first time. Among them were Garrett Bradley (Time), Heidi Ewing (I carry you with me), Yulene Olaizola (Tragic Jungle) and Dea Kulumbegashvili (Beginning).
The feature film debut of the Georgian screenwriter and director Kulumbegashvili is hard and brutal, lyrical and transcendent, with astonishing certainty and without clear sentimentality. The static camera, the aspect ratio of 1:33 and the extended sequences give the film a very distinctive aesthetic tone that might remind some viewers of Michael Haneke's work or the situation of his protagonist Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), Jeanne Dielman from Chantal Akerman . (The Mexican filmmaker Carlos Raygadas is the producer of the film). A former actress now transferred to a rural outpost where her husband (Rati Oneli, the film's co-writer) oversees a herd of Jehovah's Witnesses, Yana raises her son and serves her marriage, needs and ambitions of the lesser Meaning in the order of things. A dramatic act of violence at the beginning of the film triggers a harrowing sequence of events while Yana struggles with her loneliness and her soul-deep unhappiness, which is tormented from within and without. Her attacking encounters with a metropolitan detective who pursues and intimidates her after her husband files a fire-bombing complaint about their church opens a troubling space of psychological ambiguity where even the redemptive balm of the natural world is fraught with danger. Meanwhile, the camera quietly watches as Yana struggles with the crisis. Sukhitashvili's performance is a slow, calm, almost relentless longing.
Much like the other lead actors in the films mentioned above, Stephanie Hayes captures almost every image in Slow Machine, which despite its name, shuffles briskly back and forth on an enigmatic timeline, avoiding a predictable story arc for something that feels more improvisational to theater energy that recognizable dramatic (or dramatic, if that can be a word) situations gushing out. The title alludes to a sentence from Philip Larkin's poem "Life with a Hole in It":
"Life is an immobile, closed / three-handed battle between / your desires, the world for you and (worse) / the unbeatable slow machine / that brings what you will get."
How these lines translate or implicate the life of Stephanie, a downtown Manhattan actress (like Hayes, who she plays) with a career in black box avant-garde theater and quirky indies, is something that audiences need to think about This ironic comic sorta thriller is fleeting in 70 minutes. Directed by Joe DeNardo and Paul Felten (who also wrote the script), Slow Machine outlines an escapade on the run for the age of Edward Snowden as a tentative but chatty romance with a suspiciously straightforward anti-terrorist intelligence agent The Name Gerard ( Scott Shepherd) ends in horror, and Stephanie flees to a vague farmhouse in the backcountry (or something), where Williamsburg's over-the-top Eleanor Friedburger (more or less playing himself) is recording a new album – and not in the mood to suffer unannounced strangers. Stephanie adapts / trolls by flaunting the role of the Texas Trailer Park heroine she rehearses for her current production, drawl and all. There is a lot of awkwardness, not least during a chatty interlude with Chloe Sevigny (apparently like herself), Stephanie's irritable beast, in which the most famous actress chases away an obtrusive fan ("I'm a very small part of your life …"). before delving into a bizarre anecdote about a cryptic audition and a mysterious script that still haunts them. Then there is a danger of bombing, but the girls finish their Pinot Grigio anyway.
Emphasizing a chameleon-like trail that moves through paranoid situations in a nervous New York demimonde of hipsters, hidden identities, and the looming potential of violence, the plot creates a conspiracy mood without much conspiracy and instead chooses to abandon nature explore the story itself pays tribute to Hayes' ease of conjuring up self-mythologizing monologues.