“We be the bitches of the badlands!” So says Fern (Frances McDormand) to her friend Linda (Linda May), as the pair saunter through the desert. Anyone hoping for the kiss kiss bang bang theatrics of Thelma and Louise will be disappointed. Yet, in its own way, this extraordinary film from Chloe Zhao which cleaned up at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, solves the riddle of how to keep going in the face of death.
McDormand’s talent is a given. She’s like Janet Leigh, with a sprinkling of Anthony Perkins. To see her pixie-goblin face is to know a performance of heartbreaking genius is on its way. And so it proves.
Fern is a sixty-something widow who once taught English literature. Thanks to various economic factors, she’s been denied the chance to retire gracefully and no longer has a house. Though, as she says, she’s not homeless. Sleeping and cooking in her van, she basically embarks on a working holiday, packing parcels in an Amazon warehouse in South Dakota so that she can explore one of the most beautiful spots in the world. She gets a perfect view of the planet Jupiter, and clambers over red rock formations like a child astronaut on Mars. She also befriends a bunch of middle-aged drifters, not only the aforementioned Linda, but shy David (David Strathairn), brusque Swankie (Charlene Swankie), and a self-styled RV-life guru, Bob (Bob Wells).
The fact that many of these characters are played by real-life nomads gives the film an extra-special texture. Some of these people are on the road out of necessity, some by choice, but they feel like a genuine community and (just as important) are totally at ease in front of the camera.
One could argue Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider romanticises the lot of a workforce ripe for exploitation, and giving Amazon, in particular, a PR boost it doesn’t deserve. The end, however, justifies the means. The longer we hang around Fern, the clearer it becomes that capitalism, even when times are good, is unfit for purpose and creates despair. Every landscape makes you look twice, every snippet of song proves jolting (a smiling musician hollers, “Can you see the blood in my beer?”)
Basquiat incorporated “hobo signs” into his work, drawing attention to the wisdom and wiliness of those with no fixed address. Zhao love for hobos is just as intense. Her movie gives a voice to the marginalised. If you listen hard, it might just change your life.