Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ starring Daisy Edgar-Jones

July 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Harris Dickinson in “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Columbia Pictures)

“Where the Crawdads Sing”

Directed by Olivia Newman

Culture Representation: Taking place in North Carolina, from 1952 to the early 2020s, the dramatic film “Where the Crawdads Sing” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In 1970, a 24-year-old woman goes on trial for murdering her ex-boyfriend, and her past as a poor and abandoned child is used against her in the trial.

Culture Audience: “Where the Crawdads Sing” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based, as well as to people who are interested in stories about how people of different social classes are treated in society.

Taylor John Smith and Daisy Edgar-Jones in “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Columbia Pictures)

“Where the Crawdads Sing” has a lot of timeline jumping that will either annoy or intrigue viewers. The movie (which starts off very slow) gets better as it goes along and is elevated by a distinctive lead performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones. Fans of Delia Owens’ 2018 novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” should be satisfied with this cinematic adaptation, while other people who haven’t read the book might have more mixed reactions.

Directed by Olivia Newman and written by Lucy Alibar, the movie “Where the Crawdads Sing” takes on the challenge of telling a story that spans several decades. Just like in the book, the movie takes place in North Carolina. (The movie was actually filmed in New Orleans.) However, the timelines in the book and movie are slightly different. In the book, the timeline goes from 1952 to 2010, whereas the movie’s timeline goes from 1952 to the early 2020s.

The beginning of the film has some editing that might confuse some viewers. The opening scene takes place in the fictional coastal town of Barkley Cove, North Carolina, on the morning of October 30, 1969. Two boys riding their bicycles near a swamp have discovered the body of Chase Andrews (played by Harris Dickinson) underneath a fire tower. At the time of his death, Chase was in his mid-20s and a manager at a local auto dealership.

A medical examination shows that Chase banged his head from falling down the tower, and this head injury was fatal. However, police investigators have found no fingerprints nearby on the tower. And so, they’ve come the conclusion that Chase’s death was not an accident or suicide, and that whoever murdered him covered up the crime by wiping away fingerprints and getting rid of other evidence.

The movie then abruptly cuts to 23-year-old Kya Clark (played by Edgar-Jones) being chased down by law enforcement and put in jail. Inexplicably, a cat gets into her jail cell, and Kya cuddles with the cat for the night until the cat is taken away from her. Kya’s arrest for Chase’s murder is the talk of the town. Kya has a reputation for being a mysterious loner. And because she grew up poor, some people automatically think she’s trashy.

The evidence against Kya is very circumstantial. Kya does not have an alibi during the time frame (midnight to 2 a.m.) that investigators estimate was when Chase died on October 30, 1969. Not long before Chase died, he and Kya were seen having a fight outside that got violent. A witness saw Kya threaten to kill Chase if he ever came near her again. People close to Chase knew that he always wore a shell necklace that Kya had given to him, but the shell necklace was missing when his body was found.

On the night of Chase’s death, Kya was seen in her boat near the water tower. Kya denies it. She claims she was on a short business trip to see a book publisher in Greenville, North Carolina, and that she didn’t return to Barkley Cove until after Chase’s death. Witnesses say that they saw Kya leave and return from her trip by bus. However, she has no proof of where she was between midnight to 2 a.m. on October 30, 1969.

At a local bar, a retired attorney named Tom Milton (played by David Strathairn) is having a conversation with a few other locals about the case. Tom comments, “I’m retired. It’s not my business anymore.” But then, in another example of the movie’s not-so-great editing in the beginning of the film, Tom is then shown meeting with Kya and telling her that he wants to be her defense attorney.

The movie never bothers to explain how and why Tom changed his mind about coming out of retirement to represent Kya in this murder case. Very little is a told about Tom’s trial strategy for the case, or what kind of experience/background he has as a criminal defense attorney. If people are expecting scenes where Tom and Kya have meetings to discuss the case, forget it. Those scenes aren’t in the movie, except for a brief discussion where Kya tells Tom in no uncertain terms that she won’t take a plea bargain, which would have given her an approximate 10-year prison sentence.

What the movie does show are numerous flashbacks about what happened in Kya’s life before she went on trial for Chase’s murder, as well as riveting scenes from the trial that began in 1970. These flashbacks are not in chronological order, but the movie at least does show on screen the year in which a scene is supposed to take place. Viewers who are not paying full attention to “Where the Crawdads Sing” when watching the movie might miss some crucial details and might get confused.

Kya’s birth name is actually Catherine Danielle Clark. She is the youngest of five children. And she has lived in Barkley Cove her entire life, in an isolated house near the marsh. Her unnamed parents (played by Garret Dillahunt and Ahna O’Reilly) have a troubled marriage because Kya’s father is a violent alcoholic, who often beats his wife and kids.

When Kya was 6 years old (played by Jojo Regina), her mother suddenly abandoned the family and never came back. Kya actually saw her mother leave with a suitcase, so the trauma of this memory haunts Kya. One by one, Kya’s older siblings—sister Missy, brother Murphy (aka Murph), sister Mandy and brother Jodie—leave the household. Jodie is closest in age to Kya, so his departure hurts Kya the most.

In the movie, Will Bundon portrays a young Jodie, while Logan Macrae plays the teenage/adult Jodie. Toby Nichols portrays teenage/young adult Murph. Emma Willoughby (also known as Emma Kathryn Coleman) portrays teenage/young adult Missy. Adeleine Whittle portrays teenage/young adult Mandy. All of these siblings except for Jodie (who comes back to Barkley Cove years later) remain distant from Kya.

Kya is about 12 or 13 years old when she’s the only child left to live with her father. She still fears him, but she finds that he treats her better now that he doesn’t have to take care of so many kids. He’s also eased up on drinking alcohol.

However, he’s extremely bitter about his wife’s abandonment. When Kya’s mother sends a letter, Kya’s father angrily burns the letter in front of Kya. He’s also so enraged that he burns everything that reminds him of his wife.

Kya’s father has a knapsack of shells and feathers. After Kya’s mother left the family, Kya began using her mother’s watercolor paints to paint these shells and feathers. Kya’s talent for drawing art and her fascination with shells and feathers become major parts of the story.

As a child, Kya is often left alone for days when her father goes on gambling binges. And after one of these trips away, Kya’s father never comes back. She learns to fend for herself by catching and growing her own food. She also sells some of her food at the local general store, which is owned an operated by a friendly couple named Jumpin’ (played by Sterling Macer Jr.) and Mabel (played by Michael Hyatt), who have mutual respect for Kya.

Jumpin’ and Mabel know that Kya has been abandoned by her entire family, but they don’t want to report her to child welfare authorities because she is self-sufficient and isn’t causing any trouble. Kya is able to dodge any social services workers by hiding in the marsh if any authorities go to the home to visit. She gets the unflattering nickname Marsh Girl from people who know about her.

For most of her childhood, Kya is illiterate. On the one day she goes to school, she is taunted and laughed at by classmates for spelling the word “dog” as “god.” Kya runs away from the school and never goes back.

As a child, Kya briefly meets a boy around her age named Tate (played by Luke David Blumm), who is a friend of Jodie’s. When Kya is in her late teens and living on her own, Tate (played by Taylor John Smith) comes back into Kya’s life when she finds out he’s been leaving little gifts for her, such as booklets and supplies. Tate offers to teach Kya how to read and write when she finds out that she’s illiterate.

Just like Kya, Tate also comes from a working-class background and has a family tragedy that haunts him. His father is a shrimper. Tate’s mother and sister were killed in a car accident in Asheville, North Carolina. Tate feels tremendous guilt about their deaths because he believes that his mother and sister were in Asheville to get him a bicycle as a birthday gift.

Eventually, Tate and Kya become romantically involved with each other. However, their romance comes to an abrupt end when Tate goes away to college to pursue his dream of becoming a biologist. Before going away, Tate promised to keep in touch with Kya, but he never does.

Feeling abandoned and vulnerable, Kya ends up dating Chase, who ardently pursues her. He showers her with compliments and eventually promises that he will take care of her. However, there are some red flags about Chase, such as he doesn’t want to introduce Kya to his family. He also seems a little jealous that Kya is thinking about making money by selling her art as book illustrations.

Kya does indeed end up having a volatile relationship with Chase, which is why she’s the only suspect in his murder. What “Where the Crawdads Sing” does well is show how people who are abuse survivors see life in a different way, because they are often “on guard” or in “survival” mode. Kya’s experiences as an abuse survivor have a lot to do with the decisions that she makes in her life.

Just as in the book, the movie shows the outcome of the trial and who is guilty of Chase’s murder. How much people like the movie will depend on how much they’re engaged in Edgar-Jones’ performance. All of the other cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, but Edgar-Jones is utterly convincing in her role as this tortured soul, who doesn’t want people to see her as a victim. “Where the Crawdads Sing” certainly covers a lot of issues that have to do with how different social classes are treated and perceived, but the movie is also about not judging people by where they came from but who they are now.

Columbia Pictures and 3000 Pictures will release “Where the Crawdads Sing” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ (2021), starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Toni Collette

December 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” (2021)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Culture Representation: Taking place the U.S. (including Buffalo, New York) from 1939 to the mid-1940s, the dramatic noir film “Nightmare Alley” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A con man finds work at a carnival, where he learns how to use phony psychic skills to swindle people; he then leaves the carnival and teams up with a psychiatrist to con people in high society. 

Culture Audience: “Nightmare Alley” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, director Guillermo del Toro and noir dramas that are too bloated for their own good.

Rooney Mara and and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” is a beautiful-looking noir film about many people with very ugly personalities. The movie’s production design, cinematography and costume design are impeccable. Unfortunately, the movie’s sluggish pacing, hollow characters and corny dialogue drag down this film into being a self-indulgent bore. It’s disappointing because there’s so much talent involved in making this film, but a movie like this is supposed to intrigue viewers from beginning to end, not make them feel like they want to go to sleep.

The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” (which clocks in at an overly long 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours) is a remake of director Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film “Nightmare Alley,” starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. The movie is based on the 1946 “Nightmare Alley” novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” is also Guillermo del Toro’s directorial follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2017 fantasy drama “The Shape of Water.” Most of the “Nightmare Alley” remake’s stars, producers and department chiefs also have Academy Award recognition, as Oscar nominees or Oscar winners. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, all this talent cannot overcome this movie’s dreadfully dull pacing and painfully heavy-handed screenwriting that’s filled with hokey conversations. The “Nightmare Alley” remake screenplay (written by del Toro and Kim Morgan), which takes place from 1939 to the mid-1940s, lacks enough flair and nuance to bring these characters to life as well-rounded people. And fans of the original “Nightmare Alley” movie should be warned: This remake has an ending that’s much bleaker than the original movie.

In addition, better judgment should have been used in trimming parts of this movie that didn’t further the story very well. The first half of the movie takes place in a carnival, while most of the second half takes place in more upscale environments, when the central character (who’s a con artist) decides to go after wealthier targets than the type of people who go to carnivals. It seems like the filmmakers were so enamored with the elaborate production design for the carnival scenes, they overindulged in this part of the movie, which has a lot of drab dialogue and scenes with repetitive intentions.

At the world premiere of “Nightmare Alley” in New York City, producer J. Miles Dale said in an introduction on stage that the movie had been completed just two weeks before the premiere. That might explain why more thought wasn’t put into the film editing, which fails to sustain a high level of suspense and intrigue. This type of thrill is essential in a movie that pays homage to film noir of the 1940s.

And this is not a good sign: Many people at the premiere were laughing at lines that weren’t intended to be funny. (I attended the premiere, so I saw all of this firsthand.) As the movie plodded on, more and more people were checking the time on their phones, and the audience seemed to get more restless. But the bigger indication that this movie might not be as well-received as the filmmakers intended is that audience members at the premiere were openly giggling at lines of dialogue that were supposed to be dead-serious.

For example, there’s a scene where a character is physically assaulted in an attempted murder, which is thwarted when help arrives. When the character is asked how they’re feeling right after this attack, the character says in a melodramatic tone, “I’ll live.” It’s supposed to be a moment of high drama played to maximum effect, but several people were laughing because of how the scene is delivered in such a hammy way.

At the end of the movie, people in the audience politely applauded. (Keep in mind, that the audience also consisted of numerous people who worked on the film.) However, it wasn’t the kind of thunderous, standing-ovation applause that usually happens at a premiere for an award-worthy movie that’s going to be a massive, crowd-pleasing hit. Considering that there were many awards voters in the audience, this type of underwhelming response indicates that—at least for this particular premiere audience—many people weren’t that impressed with this remake of “Nightmare Alley.”

Even if the audience response had been more enthusiastic, it wouldn’t be able to cover up the movie’s problems. All of the cast members seem to be doing the best that they can, but they are often stymied by some of the trite dialogue that mostly renders them as caricatures. Very little is revealed about the characters’ backgrounds to give them a story behind their personal motivations.

Bradley Cooper (who is one of the film’s producers) portrays the lead character: Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a con-man drifter who ends up working at a seedy traveling carnival. He starts off doing lowly odd jobs, such as helping with construction and clean-ups. But eventually, he charms his way into becoming part of the fake psychic act at the carnival.

The carnival’s psychic act is led by a married couple named Zeena Krumbein (played by Toni Collette) and Pete Krumbein (played by David Strathairn), who coordinate their act through code words, body language and hidden written prompts underneath the stage. Zeena (whose carnival nickname is The Seer) is the flamboyant “psychic” who acts and dresses like a stereotypical fortune teller. While she’s on stage, Pete is underneath the stage, where he writes information on placards that Zeena can see from where she’s standing. The information supplies the hints and codes that prompt Zeena to correctly guess personal facts about someone who gets a “psychic reading” from her.

The Krumbeins have recorded the secrets of their con game in a small journal-sized book that is mostly kept in Pete’s possession. Stan is eager to read the book, but the Krumbeins won’t let him, although they eventually divulge some of their main secrets. Although the Krumbeins have had a partnership in work and in marriage for several years, the romantic passion has left their relationship.

Pete (a former magician) has become an alcoholic, and his alcoholism has caused him to be sloppy and unreliable in his work. He might pass out during one of Zeena’s performances, which is what happens in one scene where Stan has to quickly take over for a barely coherent Pete. It’s implied that Pete has become an alcoholic because he feels guilty about conning people. At one point, Pete warns Stan that the Krumbeins’ con-game secrets should not be abused, and anyone who does so could be cursed. “No man can outrun God!” Pete says ominously.

Zeena openly has affairs with other men. And you know what that means. It isn’t long before Stan and Zeena have an affair, but it’s all lust and no love. And considering that Stan is a con artist, he has ulterior motives for getting close to Zeena. This is an example of the cornball dialogue in the movie: Zeena says this pickup line to Stan before they begin their sexual relationship: “You’re a maybe. And maybes are real bad for me.”

While Stan is carrying on an affair with Zeena, he finds himself more attracted to a virtuous young carnival worker named Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara), who performs as an electricity-absorbing phenomenon named Elektra. Molly’s Elektra act consists of being tied to an electric chair and absorbing shocks of voltage that could kill or injure most people. Molly has a trusting nature that makes her blind to Stan’s manipulative ways. Not much information is given about Molly’s background to explain why she’s so naïve about the “smoke and mirrors” carnival business and the con artists that this type of business attracts.

Stan and Zeena’s affair eventually fizzles out, and he begins ardently courting Molly. However, the carnival has a strong man named Bruno (played by Ron Perlman), who is very protective of Molly and is suspicious of Stan’s intentions. Bruno has a co-star named Major Mosquito (played by Mark Povinelli), who also sees himself in a patriarchal role for the carnival. Bruno’s hostility toward Stan doesn’t stop Molly from falling for Stan’s charms. Eventually, Molly and Stan become lovers.

Not much is revealed about Stan’s background except that he’s originally from Mississippi, and he has “daddy issues.” On a rare occasion that he opens up to someone about his past, he talks about a treasured watch that he has that was previously owned by Stan’s dead father. In brief flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed what Stan’s relationship with his father was like.

Meanwhile, other characters at the carnival are in the story, but they are essentially superficial clichés. The carny boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a typical huckster. The carnival barker Clem Hoatley (played by Willem Dafoe) is a gruff taskmaster with a cruel and sadistic side. He likes to torment the carnival’s caged “freak” (played by Paul Anderson), a pathetic, gnarled, and dirty human being whose birth name is never revealed in the story and who is usually referred to as the Geek.

Clem tells people that the Geek can go days without food and water. The Geek doesn’t talk but instead snarls and growls like an animal. As part of the Geek’s “act,” Clem or other people feed live chickens to the Geek, who tears the chickens apart and eats them raw. Sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie shows these acts of animal cruelty in detail, through visual effects.

Cruelty and degradation (to animals and to human beings) permeate throughout “Nightmare Alley,” which is nearly devoid of any intended humor. The scenes are staged with immense attention to detail on how everything looks, but the filmmakers didn’t pay enough attention to how these characters are supposed to make viewers feel. Most of the main characters are obnoxious and/or smug, which makes it harder for viewers to root for anyone. Molly is the only character in the movie who seems immune to becoming corrupt, but she’s written as almost too good to be true.

When too many people in a movie are unlikable, that can be a problem if they’re unable to convey some shred of humanity that can make them more relatable to viewers. And the result is a movie where viewers won’t care much about the backstabbing, selfish and greedy characters that over-populate this movie. Because so many of the characters (except for Molly) are so blatant with their devious ways, there’s no suspense over who will end up double-crossing whom. And that makes almost everything so predictable.

Due to a series of circumstances, Stan ends up becoming Zeena’s partner in the fake clairvoyant act. Stan thinks that he’s got real talent for this type of con game, so he decides to run off with Molly and target wealthier “marks” so he can become rich too. Considering that Bruno is the type to get physically rough in his disapproval of Molly and Stan’s relationship, and Bruno isn’t leaving the carnival anytime soon, Stan and Molly believe the time is right to leave the carnival for a better life. Molly and Stan relocate to Buffalo, New York.

Stan then become a semi-successful solo psychic named the Great Stanton, who does his act at sleek nightclubs attended by upper-class people. Molly is his willing accomplice, as long as Stan confines his act to entertaining people as a performer who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Stan often wears a blindfold for added effect when he makes his guesses about people, based on their body language, the way that they dress and any information he can get about the guests before the show. Stan is no longer financially struggling like he was as a carnival worker, but he wants to be as wealthy as or wealthier than the people who attend his shows. He’s about to meet his new partner his crime.

During one of his performances, Stan has a heckler in the audience who challenges his authenticity. Her name is Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who tries to humiliate Stan by demanding that he tell everyone what is hidden in her purse. Through a series of observant deductions, Stan correctly guesses that she has a gun in her purse. He then proceeds to turn the tables on Lilith and publicly embarrass her with scathing comments for trying to prove that he’s a fraud.

Under these circumstances, any fool can see that Lilith is not the type of person to forgive and forget this public shaming. However, when Lilith invites Stan to her office, Stan readily accepts. She tells him that she knows he’s a con artist and won’t believe otherwise. Stan then admits it and tells Lilith how he figured out that she was carrying a pistol in his purse. The stage has now been set for two people who think they’re more cunning than the other, as they both try to see what they can get out of any relationship they might have.

Lilith tells Stan that she secretly records all of the sessions that she has with her patients, who are among the richest and most powerful people in the area. Stan immediately has the idea of using that information to target some of these people with his phony psychic act, by using their private information from these recorded sessions to convince them that he knows their secrets. Stan asks Lilith which of her clients is the wealthiest.

And that’s how Stan hears about ruthless business mogul Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins), who is successful when it comes to his career, but his personal life is filled with bitterness and loneliness. Ezra has confessed to Lilith that he’s been plagued with guilt over causing the death of a young woman he once loved. It’s information that Lilith and Stan use to concoct a scheme to swindle Ezra out of a fortune that they want to get in cash.

Stan and Lilith have the type of relationship where they trade insults but are sexually attracted to each other. It doesn’t take long for Stan to cheat on Molly with Lilith. Blanchett fully commits to the role of a classic noir ice queen, but her portrayal of Lilith is so transparently calculating, it’s never convincing that Lilith can be trusted in this con game that she’s agreed to with Stan.

Ezra isn’t the only “mark” who’s a target of Stan and Lilith. A well-to-do married couple named Charles Kimball (played by Peter MacNeill) and Felicia Kimball (played by Mary Steenburgen) get caught up in the deceit and fraud that Stan and Lilith have in store for them. It has to do with the Kimballs’ emotional pain over the death of their 23-year-old son Julian, who died while he was enlisted in the military. And it’s an example of how low Stan and Lilith are willing to go to exploit the death of a loved one for money.

As lead character Stan, Cooper is in almost every scene of “Nightmare Alley.” His character remains mostly an enigma because, like many con artists, he changes his persona to fit whatever perception will work to get people to do what he wants. He’s the most complex character of the movie, but his personality never comes across as genuine. Over time, Stan shows that he’s not only heartless, but he also doesn’t have much of a conscience unless he’s the one who might get hurt. He’s not even an anti-hero, although the last 10 minutes of the film try to garner some viewer sympathy for Stan.

Ezra can sense that Stan can’t be trusted, so Ezra goes back and forth with how skeptical he is when Stan tries to charm his way into Ezra’s life. However, Stan knows so many private details about Ezra, it’s enough to convince Ezra that maybe Stan is the telling the truth about being psychic. Ezra is supposed to be a brilliant businessman, but at no point is he smart enough to figure out that maybe his psychiatrist has been leaking his personal information.

Stan is supposed to be a skillful con artist, but at no point is he wise enough to figure out that if Lilith has a recording device in her office to secretly record people, maybe she would use it to secretly record Stan too. After all, the recording can be cleverly edited to leave out any incriminating things that Lilith would say. This is all just common sense, which is why it’s a bit of a slog when the movie lumbers along to make it look like there’s some kind of mystery about Lilith’s intentions. The only thing in the movie that might be considered a little unpredictable is what happens with the Kimballs.

“Nightmare Alley” is not the first retro-noir-inspired movie directed by del Toro. He also directed 2015’s “Crimson Peak” (starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska), which also yielded mixed results because the pacing for the movie was so lethargic. At least “Crimson Peak” has a less tedious length of two hours. “Nightmare Alley” tries to convince people that it’s fascinating to watch monotonous scene after monotonous scene of Stan working his way up the carnival hierarchy, when the real story is what he does once he decides he’s going to become a phony psychic. The pace of the movie would’ve been better-served if about 20 to 30 minutes of the movie’s first half had been edited out.

The movie’s screenplay is still problematic though because of how it leaves no room to care about the story’s overabundance of distrustful and shallow characters, who spout a lot of words that don’t have much substance. “Nightmare Alley” takes so long to get to the inevitable end result of Stan and Lilith’s partnership, many viewers might have emotionally checked out by the time it happens. It’s enough to say that Molly is really the only character that viewers might care about by the time the movie is over. This remake’s revised ending has a well-acted, emotional final scene, but it’s not enough to make up for the character soullessness throughout most of the movie.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Nightmare Alley” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

UPDATE: Searchlight Pictures will release a black-and-white version of “Nightmare Alley” titled “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light” for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Nomadland,’ starring Frances McDormand

December 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)


Directed by Chloé Zhao

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2012 and 2013 in various parts of the United States (mainly the West Coast and Midwest), the dramatic film “Nomadland” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow, who lives in her van by choice and makes a living doing temporary jobs, leads a nomadic existence and is unapologetic about this lifestyle choice to people who don’t approve.

Culture Audience: “Nomadland” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted realistic character studies about people who live on the fringes of society and are often overlooked by mainstream media.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in “Nomadland” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Nomadland” is a great American film that represents people who haven’t achieved the great American Dream in the traditional sense but are surviving on their own terms. It’s a drama about a culture that’s rarely seen in a narrative film: People who are not completely homeless but who choose to live in a motor vehicle and travel to find work, wherever and whenever they can. They don’t want anyone’s pity. They just want the respect to live their lives non-traditionally.

And the fact that this story centers on a middle-aged widow with no children makes it even more unusual but no less impactful, because she doesn’t fit the usual profile of nomadic people who get movies made about them. She’s an American refugee in her own country, because the city that she lived and worked in for several years was economically devastated and shut down, so she’s been forced to find a life elsewhere as a nomad.

Written, directed and edited by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving in America in the 21st Century.” As such, most of the film’s cast members are real-life nomads (whose last names are not revealed in the cast credits), which give the movie a level of authenticity that can’t be duplicated by a cast filled with professional actors. Zhao’s masterful cinematic version of the story also makes the sweeping landscapes of the open road as of much a character as the story’s protagonist: Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a no-nonsense, self-sufficient widow who is still recovering from the grief of losing her husband after 32 years of marriage.

Fern used to live in the very small town of Empire, Nevada, which had a population of 217 people in the 2010 census. In real life, Empire suffered from an irrecoverable loss on January 23, 2011, when the United States Gypsum mining plant (the rural town’s main employer) shut down, due to reduced demand for sheetrock. By July 2011, Empire’s zip code (89405) was discontinued. This information is stated in the movie’s prologue.

Fern’s husband died around the same time that Empire became a ghost town. And so, with nothing to keep her in Empire, this widow has been on her own, living in her van, and trying to find enough work to keep herself financially afloat. The movie’s story takes place over the course of about 12 to 14 months, beginning during the year-end holiday season in 2012. Fern reports to work at an Amazon warehouse, where she has signed on for temporary work as a package processor, since the company has increased demand for workers during this holiday season.

Fern is friendly but emotionally elusive. She’s good at making small talk and bonding with passing acquaintances, but she’s closed-off when it comes to revealing her true inner feelings and making long-lasting close friendships. Throughout the film, there are glimpses of her emotional turmoil, but she never lets anything get her too depressed. She can’t afford to be depressed. She has to keep going for survival.

Fern is not old enough to retire, but she’s too old to be considered a viable candidate for a lot of jobs that require a lot of strenuous physical activity. Even if Fern were at retirement age, she can’t afford to retire. She and her husband had no children (apparently by choice, since Fern expresses no regrets about not having kids) and whatever savings they might have had is long gone.

She’s too proud to ask for financial assistance in most situations. If she does ask to borrow money from someone she knows (which happens a few times in the movie), it’s only as a last resort. And it’s clear that she finds it very difficult to ask anyone for money, because it makes her feel worthless. She always considers the money that she asks for to be a loan, not a gift or a handout. She promises to pay back the money, and you get the feeling that she means it. 

The closest thing that Fern has to a best friend is a woman about 10 years older than she is named Linda May (played by a real-life nomad named Linda May), who helped Fern get the temporary job at Amazon. After this temp job is completed, Fern decides she kind of likes the city and goes to an employment agency to try to find work so she can stay longer in the city.

The female agency employee who assists Fern warns her that there’s almost no additional work in the area this time of year. The agency employee is correct. Fern can’t find another job there, so she has to move on to a place where she can find work. And the work that she finds is usually temporary. This a pattern that repeats itself for much of the story, because people without a permanent address have a much harder time finding a permanent job.

“Nomadland” was filmed in Nevada, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona and California. None of the cities where Fern ends up is ever named, because the names of the cities don’t really matter. This movie is all about Fern’s experiences and the people she meets along the way in this particular time period in her life. Because the movie begins and ends during the winter months, there are multiple scenes where Fern has to deal with sleeping in her van during freezing weather.

A few times, some people who come across Fern express concern that she’s living in a van all by herself in freezing temperatures. Having a portable heater doesn’t really help and can sometimes be dangerous in an enclosed automobile, if the heater is kept on for a long period of time. Sometimes Fern stays at camping sites and RV parks (which usually cost money), while other times, she sleeps somewhere for free in a parking lot or out in a deserted area where she thinks she won’t be bothered. She refuses to stay at homeless shelters.

Linda May tells Fern about a nomad community gathering called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), led by a charismatic man named Bob Wells (who portrays himself), who can best be described as someone who looks like a flannel-wearing Santa Claus. RTR is based in Quartzsite, Arizona, and it’s a support system geared mainly to nomads who are in desperate need of help. Fern looks at an online video of Bob speaking (she has her phone for Internet access) and politely tells Linda May that she’s not interested in going to the next RTR gathering.

But at some point, Fern changes her mind when she’s running very low on money. And she finds that RTR is a community of nomads who are a lot like she is: Over the age of 60, barely getting by financially, but loving life on the road. In the first meeting that she experiences with Bob, he talks about how people in their age group are a lot like work horses that are considered too old to be useful and are put out to pasture. Bob tells them to think of RTR as being like work horses who look out for each other. Fern likes what she hears, so she decides to stay.

Later, when Fern has a one-on-one meeting with Bob, he tells her: “I think you’ve come to the right place to find an answer. I think communing with nature and a real, true community and tribe will make all the difference for you.” Fern replies, “I hope so.”

The RTR gathering is almost like an informal seminar, because it includes instructions and advice on living in a vehicle. It also has swap meets for many of the attendees to trade or give away items. It’s at one of the swap meets that Fern meets Dave (played by David Strathairn), a tall and bearded gentleman who’s around her age or slightly older, and he seems as if he’s immediately attracted to Fern. She plays it cool though, and they talk about their can openers before going their separate ways.

Later, Fern and Dave see each other again at a social gathering and he asks her to dance. She warms up to him a little and he basically tells her that he’s available, but she still gives him the impression that she’s not interested in dating him. Although Fern doesn’t say it out loud, it’s pretty obvious that she’s still grieving over the loss of her husband, whom she speaks fondly of later in the story when she opens up to someone about him.

Although Fern considers her to be independent, there are scenes in the movie where she still shows some naïveté about basic things when it comes to looking out for her safety as a road traveler. For example, Fern’s tendency to be a loner means that she often parks in areas that are too isolated and would be disastrous if she needed help from someone nearby. When she sleeps in her car during the cold winter months, she has a thick blanket and layered clothing, but she doesn’t think of ways to better protect herself from getting sick or frost-bitten.

And she’s not as skilled in auto mechanics as she should be. One day, Fern finds that her parked car has a flat tire, but she does not have a spare tire. But even if she did, Fern doesn’t know how to change a tire. Luckily, another nomad whom she knows named Swankie (played by real-life nomad named Charlene Swankie) is parked nearby and can help her.

Fern asks Swankie to drive her to the nearest gas station to get help and a spare tire. Swankie mildly scolds Fern and tells her that it’s time for her to learn how to change a tire and that she should always have a spare tire. During a heart-to-heart conversation in Ruth’s van, Swankie tells her that she will soon turn 75, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she now has only seven or eight months to live. Swankie doesn’t want to go through cancer treatment. Instead, she wants to spend her last days on Earth doing things she always wanted to do, like go to Alaska.

Swankie tells Fern that she learned this lesson after she watch a close friend die from a terminal illness and how this friend had a boat parked at his home that he never got to use because he kept putting it off until he had more time. Swankie also opens up about the suicidal thoughts that she had when she found out that she had cancer. Swankie says she even read Jack Kevorkian’s controversial “Final Exit” book to get ideas, but she changed her mind about killing herself because she didn’t want to leave behind her two dogs. In turn, Fern reveals some of the feelings that she went through when her husband was dying of a terminal illness. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

During the course of the film, Fern takes different temporary jobs, including working as a camp host. She encounters Dave (who sometimes works as a fossil guide) at different times during the story and they become closer. She ends up meeting Dave’s musician son James (Tay Strathairn) and other members of Dave’s family. Fern also spends time with her married sister, who’s led a much more traditional and conservative life than Fern has. Viewers will get more insight into Fern’s family background during this crucial scene.

People should not expect a typical road-trip movie in “Nomadland.” Most road-trip movies want to stuff the plot with a lot of mishaps or high-octane action, but “Nomad” often focuses on the mundane but realistic everyday activities of Fern at work and in her free time. She takes pleasure in simple things, as demonstrated in a scene where Fern and Linda May pretend they’re at a spa and put tissues on their faces and cucumbers over their eyes.

And it’s a very intimate look at Fern life—maybe too intimate for some viewers, because there’s a scene of her urinating out in the desert and a scene of her defecating in a bucket in her van. (For people easily offended by bodily functions depicted on screen, you’ve been warned.) The defecation scene is not so graphic that viewers see the end results, but it’s explicit enough where people might find out more about Fern’s intestinal activities than they care to know. There’s also a full-frontal nude scene of Fern floating on water as she takes a relaxing dip in a lake.

These scenes are meant to give this drama a documentary feel, especially when Fern is alone. McDormand is so talented that she doesn’t need to speak in any solitary scenes, because her facial expressions say a lot more than what many scripted lines would say. The cinematography from Joshua James Richards gives emotional resonance to the seasons and terrain that Fern experiences during her journey. It’s during the freezing winter months that viewers get the most impactful sense of Fern’s isolation, because even she doesn’t know if she’s putting herself in a situation where she could wake up with frostbite or her van too buried in snow to drive.

But what “Nomadland” captures best is the reality that for nomads like Fern, the only thing constant is change. People come and go out of each other’s lives. Home means not having a building as a permanent place to live. There’s a pivotal scene in the movie were Fern has to make a choice to live a comfortable and more stable life in a regular house or keep living her more difficult and unstable life on the road. The choice she makes tells viewers what they need to know about what Fern’s definition of “freedom” is and what she might or might not be willing to give up to have that freedom.

Searchlight Pictures released “Nomadland” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 4, 2020. The movie is set for a release in select IMAX theaters in the U.S. on January 29, 2021. “Nomadland” goes into wider release in U.S. cinemas and debuts on Hulu on February 19, 2021.

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