This movie quite rightly deserves the three Oscars it got for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director in a year of some pretty remarkable films, pandemic or no pandemic. Francis McDormand is a national treasure, the winner of 3 best acting Oscars, two Emmys, 3 Golden Globes, and I could go on. Apart from Meryl Streep she is the only currently working actress that is in the same stratosphere as Meryl. But watching Francis is by no means the only reason to see this film. It is a very moving film about older people trying to find their way in difficult situations and times.
The film begins (and ends) in Empire Nevada where in 2011 the gypsum mine, which was the whole industry of the small town, closes due to decline in a need for the kind of products one can make from gypsum. Within six months, the town was basically a ghost town. Francis had already lost her husband, but when she also lost her job, being a person who loved to work, she lost her sense of purpose and meaning, and began wandering… to try and figure things out. She wanders to Arizona where there is a camp of nomads rather like her, who are finding some solace in numbers and similar situations. But this rambling rose doesn’t stay there. She moves on to other destinations including the Badlands of South Dakota. The film just exudes the sense of loneliness, and even abandonness that so many elderly people like ‘Fern’ (the name of Francis in the film) feel and experience. And there is something about being out in the desert or in a stark and remote places that simply accentuates the sense of being adrift, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. These people live in their campers or RVs, having no permanent address or home. They are nomads, living in no man’s land. The sense of loss hangs over this film from beginning to end. And yet, the film is full of humanness, and deep explorations of how people cope with grief, loss, loneliness. It is powerful and there are lesson to be learned. Somewhere in the background you can imagine Bette Midler singing ‘if that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing’.
I suspect one of the main reasons this film resonates with so many this year is because we have all been living in the Twilight Zone, in isolation in the past year, without human intimacy or contact of various sorts. This film exegetes many of the nuances of that whole experience. This somewhat less than two hour film is well worth viewing not least because it prompts one to some deep reflection on how we have each responded to our own isolation. This film reminds me of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and it is an ode to human survival under difficult circumstances. In some ways, it’s an instant classic, not least because it peels back the veil on one side of the American experience, and the painful cost of our radical individualism and independence.