In an Oscar season like no other, checking out the likely contenders on the big screen simply isn’t an option. In previous years, some of the nominees would have been available for home viewing by the time of the award ceremony, but this year pretty much all of them should be, especially with the pushed-back calendar the Academy has instituted. (Any film released, including on a streaming platform, by February 28 is eligible; nominations are due on March 15, and statuettes will be doled out on April 25.)
Even if it’s possible to watch all these films at home, though, it’s anything but equally easy to do so. As an example, I caught up this week with two films widely expected to contend for, at the very least, the Best Actress prize. One was Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, which was released onto Hulu last Friday, February 19. For anyone with a $12 monthly Hulu subscription, Nomadland was free. The other was Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, which has been available on demand for several weeks, but for a rental price of $19.99.
These are both fascinating films, brave, intense, and unafraid to be divisive or unconventional. And the praise that Nomadland’s Frances McDormand and Woman’s Carey Mulligan will continue to receive is incredibly well-deserved—McDormand is poised to become only the second woman to win three Best Actress Oscars, after Katharine Hepburn (who won four). But I can’t help wondering how the audience for these movies is skewed by the difference in cost.
Promising Young Woman is, on the surface, the more mainstream of the pair, although it challenges its audience in rare and unexpected ways. Mulligan plays Cassandra, a former med student who works in a coffee shop and has a curious evening habit. She visits bars, fakes being drunk, and then puts the fear of God into men who try to take advantage of her apparent condition, snapping back to sobriety and doling out payback. Before long, it emerges that she does so in a continuing response to an assault against her best friend back in school, an event that traumatized Cassandra to the degree that she is unable to even contemplate a functional romantic relationship.
When Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate, pops back into her life, it presents not only the chance for a healthy dating experience but a tantalizing opportunity to get back at the man she believes committed the assault. More than a simple revenge fantasy, however, Fennell’s debut feature (she previously worked on the BBC series Killing Eve) probes both the ways in which patriarchal society makes such revenge nearly impossible, and the ways trauma persists in the lives not only of victims, but of their friends and families as well. Mulligan’s performance is astonishing, and the supporting cast, including Burnham, Alison Brie, and Connie Britton, is solid. Far from a dour feminist fable, it’s a darkly hilarious, jagged piece of work with savvy to spare. And that final act will be spurring debate for some time to come.
As I mentioned, it took me over a month to work up the gumption to spend $20 on Promising Young Woman. (One consequence of the shift from theatrical to online releasing is the lack of press screenings and fewer opportunities from major distributors to preview their releases.) I’m glad I did, and it was certainly less expensive than three tickets to see the movie at the Fox Tower would have been. But if I didn’t have a family to amortize the costs, it would be a pretty tough sell. (Thanks, family!)
In contrast, I knew I’d see Nomadland at the first opportunity once it debuted on Hulu. A highly anticipated, universally acclaimed movie, essentially free to watch at home on demand the day it comes out? I love movie theaters, don’t get me wrong, but that’s too good a deal to pass up. (If I’d had the option to buy a ticket to see it at the Hollywood Theatre or Cinema 21 on Friday, I’d like to think I would have done so.)
Even at premium prices, Nomadland would be a bargain. In a year that has drained our collective ability to be awed by cinema (or maybe just my ability…), it’s proof that movies can still engage heads and hearts and eyes and ears, that they can capture character in a moment and a moment in history.
McDormand plays Fern, a widow who joins the ranks of America’s roaming senior citizens when the Nevada company town where she had lived shuts down. Director Chloe Zhao (The Rider) investigates this subculture of RV dwellers, van-based migrants, and seasonal employment, all on the fringes of society, with empathy and authenticity. Many, if not most, of the supporting characters are real-life nomads playing themselves, and press reports have indicated that some of them didn’t even know they were appearing in a work of fiction. In some ways, it’s like the flip side to Borat—instead of giving ordinary Americans the opportunity to expose their inner ugliness, it allows these dusty, misbegotten residents of truck stops and campgrounds to express their inner humanity.
Nomadland has a lot to say–or rather, a lot to show—about the cruelty of post-industrial capitalism, the atomization of American society, and the enduring lure of the open road. But none of that would land as powerfully as it does without the monumental, intimate work McDormand puts in. As ever, she possesses not a shred of vanity or self-importance, inhabiting Fern with such ease that it’s no shock to learn how much of herself and her life she put into the role.
Although it flirts with a traditional plot at times, including a potential romance with another nomad played by David Strathairn (an actor who makes Alan Alda look like Chuck Norris), Nomadland is much more episodic, lyrical, and melancholy than 99% of American movies. It’s not “entertaining” in the way that even an in-your-face experience like Promising Young Woman is. In a pre-pandemic world, neither would have been a box-office smash, but Woman would almost certainly have sold more tickets than Nomadland. I’d be willing to bet, though, that in this world, more people have seen the grimly empathetic ode to an aging American underclass than the ambiguously empowering take on the persistence of rape culture and how best to combat it.
It will be a while before we can fully assess the impact on the reception, distribution, and (inevitably) production of American movies in the wake of the pandemic. But comparisons like this one could provide hints of the possibilities that such a reconfiguration might open up.