carl_son’s review published on Letterboxd:
What Francis McDormand can do, very few people can do. She’s really very very good. But for me it was the actors (nonactors?) in a couple of the smaller roles that stole the show. Bob and Swankie, specifically, who are great overall but also each get and totally elevate their own heavy monologue.
Other than the acting, this really doesn’t do it for me. Not score, not cinematography (it’s gorgeous but that’s the land, not the camera), not editing, not plot. A few good scenes jumbled up with many commonplace ones, the whole thing bogged down by IMO a lack of formal and narrative bravery.
The premise has so much potential, so many hints at the inquiries the film could have pursued. Most disappointingly, Bob’s diagnosis of the society that forced these people onto the road is kept to a short couple minutes (if that), and the thread is never picked back up. Just enough to signal to the audience that it “gets it”.
And so if this film sets its sights on a more individual scale, then Fern’s story ought to feel full. But it doesn’t. It’s fine that she learns lessons along the way and yet chooses essentially the same course of action as always at the close — I’m not asking for some big dramatic arc. But I wanted to get to know her. We are kept at arm’s length — tough to manage, in a van — from the details that would serve to endear her to us, instead left to piece the bits together. Ok she’s quiet. Ok she still has plates from her father. Ok she’s still grieving. Ok she begrudgingly helps out her friends and gives cigarettes to people she doesn’t know. Ok she has a sister and always leaves holes in people’s lives. She says she lives in memory, but nothing comes of it except for staring at the pieces of her old life that she supposedly has a connection to but which we don’t, because the time and dedication has not been taken to build our care. For example, sure I thought, “gosh that sucks about the plates”, but I was more upset by Fern’s reaction to the man who breaks them than his breaking of them itself — this because I don’t feel what Fern feels, I only feel what someone watching Fern would feel — and the thing is, she had every right to be way more upset than she was. Don’t we want to be totally enmeshed in a protagonist’s emotions in a film like this?
So who is she? I know more about Swankie and Bob and, frankly, Bo, by the end then I do about her, and that’s a big problem for any story, unless you’re Albert Camus or Walker Percy or somebody and you’re writing a novel.
But maybe that’s my issue. Loose works of memory and mood and interiority might just inherently be better suited to another medium, and, if they are to be tackled by film, that film must break the bounds of its own conceptions of itself. This one does only in the aforementioned monologues, and perhaps minimally in the moment when Fern looks at the landscape through the stone, tho that is cheapened by the unabashedly manipulative score behind it.
I guess it sounds like I’m trashing this movie, but I didn’t hate it. It’s perfectly serviceable. It’s just that I can’t help but feel it could have been truly good, or even great, if it were allowed to spread its wings — technically, narratively, philosophically.
Oh well. It’ll win Oscars.