“Nomadland” was a big winner at an Oscars that hardly anyone watched, with Chloé Zhao winning Best Director, Frances McDormand taking home Best Actress, and the film claiming Best Picture. Contrary to what the Academy thinks of the film, I believe is one of worst movies I’ve ever watched (which is saying something). I also believe that “The Last Shift” is a much better if lesser-known film, with a similar theme of a bad economy turning people’s lives upside down.
Frankly, the selection of “Nomadland” for Best Picture is a slap in the face of anyone who loves film and its capabilities. It is formless, plotless, and boring beyond description, made by Zhao, McDormand, and a relatively small crew by getting together a few times over four years and filming almost-random incidents and conversations around the Western deserts, with mostly real people playing the other characters in the “story”. Not that such an approach couldn’t work—but it certainly didn’t work in this case.
The film ostensibly follows Fern (McDormand), a woman who has taken to drifting across the Western deserts while living in a camper van following her husband’s death and the demise of her industrial town a few years before. She occasionally stops for several days or weeks to work for Amazon in its facilities; she eventually takes a job in a restaurant, where she meets a fellow nomadic man named Dave (veteran actor David Strathairn) who takes a curious interest in her and they become friends.
Whether Fern decides to settle in with Dave or chooses to continue her traveling ways for seemingly forever is about as much of a defining plot dilemma as “Nomadland” offers. Aside from those two lead actors, every single performance in the movie is largely improvised and the “characters” are actual people who live as nomads on America’s backroads.
Basically, if you want to watch a bunch of broke and boring characters make crafts, barter goods, talk around campfires, this is the film for you. And if you really want to see McDormand relieve herself in a bucket before seeing her do a full-frontal skinny dip (and trust me, you don’t want to see either), this movie might be of interest. But if you want a plot, dramatic momentum of any kind, or characters worth caring about, move along.
Many will say that I’m missing the point. Its admirers—I doubt anyone could actually be a fan of this turgid mess—say the film speaks to the economic disconnect that has upended the lives of countless average Americans in both the Great Recession of 2008 (the film is set around 2010) or the pandemic of the past year.
It’s well and good, of course, to depict lives of struggle and hardship. The novel and classic film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, are stunning masterpieces. But they also dug deep, rather than leaving us with boring ciphers like Fern, who reveals nothing about herself and shows zero growth by the (merciful) end of this movie.
I’m afraid that what this really shows is that Hollywood is worse off than we feared. I guarantee if a white male made “Nomadland”, it would have gotten the complete disregard it deserves. As is nearly always the case with “woke” movies, this is one that will put you to sleep, if you don’t turn it off first.
Far better is “The Last Shift,” a film written and directed by Emmy-winning documentarian Andrew Cohn in his feature fictional filmmaking debut. It tells a simple story of people on the bottom rung of the economic ladder as well, but they’re people you come to care about—and people who actually have a narrative arc to follow.
“The Last Shift” was a Sundance movie last year and so it should have received more attention when it came out, but then Andrew Cohn is a white guy and Hollywood was apparently determined to spotlight anything else on the racial-sexual spectrum at the Oscars this past Sunday.
The movie stars Richard Jenkins—a terrific veteran actor who’s been nominated for Oscars in “The Visitor” and “The Shape of Water”—as a 60-something man named Stanley who has worked the overnight shift at a locally-owned fast-food restaurant in Michigan for over thirty years. He is getting ready to move to Florida and have his mother move out of a nursing facility and in with him, and so he must train a young Black man named Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie) to take over his job over the course of a few final nights.
The two men don’t have much in common other than tough circumstances. Jevon wants to be a writer but feels like he’s destined to be trapped in a dead-end job like Stanley. The two become improbable friends, revealing interesting shadings of character throughout their conversations about life. But when Stanley is mugged one night and left hopeless, he makes a decision that has devastating impacts for both men.
Cohn creates characters with plenty of layers—flawed and real people that viewers can care about. He writes an actual script rather than turning a camera on a bunch of hopeless old people and throwing whatever results on the screen. The final half hour of “The Last Shift” is unpredictable, fascinating, and deeply moving. In other words, it is everything that “Nomadland” is not.
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