An apology, or if you prefer a warning: this is perhaps less on the order of a review than it is a rant. The thing is, I found Nomadland to be a completely repulsive movie, cloying when it works and actively pernicious when it doesn't, and simply having to choke it down was galling enough; to do so while hearing it get praised from nearly all corners as a sensitive, rich masterpiece of humanity has driven me as close as I've come in the 15-years-and-change I've been doing this to finally just give up writing about movies, or at least movies made any more recently than the 1940s. Bad enough that smug pandering bullshit like this gets made; for it to be hailed as the salvation of cinema only really tells me that cinema is dead, dead, dead, and it's never coming back.

We have in front of us 108 minutes of poverty tourism, plain and simple, an offer to allow people who do not have the foggiest clue what "being poor" means or looks like, to join with Frances McDormand as she looks with a quietly sad smile and gently nods her head at the sad but heartlifting tales of people who are doing what they can to find meaning in wandering the western United States as modern-day nomads, left behind by the merciless economy but persevering. There is maybe something that can be done with this, as I suspect it was perhaps done in the film's source material, Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It would require, for a start, ruthlessly jettisoning all of the sentimentality that inexplicably overpraised director-for-hire Chloé Zhao has allowed to overwhelm the movie like a cancer. The film's thesis, in its first half, before it suddenly reveals that it's been telling a different story the whole time than it claimed it was telling, is that these nomads (virtually all of them played by actual people who do in fact live a nomadic lifestyle, often brought on by poverty and economic collapse; in some cases, they didn't even realise until afterwards that they were being filmed for a narrative movie and that McDormand was a professional actor) may be materially poor, but they are rich in spirit and in a love of the boundless promise of the American frontier, reborn in the 21st Century as a place of natural beauty and libertarian openness and promise that as long as you have determination and a lovingly battered RV, you can still live a version of the American dream.

This is fucking obscene. At best, it reduces poor people to zoo animals, to be patronisingly gazed at with loving, beatific condescension by producer McDormand (net worth: $30 million) and director Zhao (whose father made a fortune in steel and real estate in China), who I am very certain think that they're being humane and understanding. It is the kind of humanity that results in McDormand's fictional nomad Fern, wandering the earth in a van after her husband died and the company town where they lived closed following the 2008 recession, kindly but firmly (she does many thing in this film "kindly but firmly") informing some teenagers that she is "houseless", not "homeless". This is the kind of language game played by bourgeois upper-middle-class liberal artists who undoubtedly think that Nomadland matters because it allows these people to "tell their stories" and whatnot, as though that puts a single hot dinner on the table, as though homelessness - oh! I do beg your fucking pardon, Ms. McDormand - as though houselessness is an identity and not a material condition. I'm just a dumb ol' vulgar Marxist and left populist, but to my way of thinking, whether you call a person "houseless" or "homeless" or "a filthy fucking bum" is sort of secondary to whether you're using your widely celebrated award-winning movie to argue that we should do things to give these people houses. But that would get in the way of the message that, well actually, living out of an RV gives the nomads a certain earthy authenticity and connection to the beauty all around us that's, well, it's just gosh-darn more sincere than us city folks get to be.

This is where the perniciousness comes in. Nomadland is not actually about a poor woman - some of the nomads are poor, I have no doubt, but when push comes the shove, the film doesn't actually view them as real honest-to-God people with real honest-to-God inner lives. But Fern isn't poor, not "has to live in a van" poor. She chooses to be a nomad, which is where the second half of the plot kicks in, and we discover that she has a sister who is doing well enough financially to be able to bail Fern out of whatever troubles arise, at the cost of nothing more than a judgmental cluck of the tongue and the suggestion that you had really ought to consider moving in with my husband and me. And the big moral decision is whether she'll settle down with the nice other nomad played by a professional actor, David Straithairn, whose kids have finally insisted that he needs to  stop fucking around all over the West and just live in their ample-sized house so they don't have to keep worrying about him.

That could easily be a compelling dramatic scenario, but not as Nomadland presents it. The film isn't so far from Andrea Arnold's remarkable American Honey from 2016, a story about people detaching from society and living in grinding poverty that views its young cast's embrace of their open-road freedom with skeptical sympathy, seeing what's appealing and beautiful about their life while also remaining very open to the possibility that they're damaging themselves beyond repair. Nomadland firmly adopts Fern's perspective and never once can imagine that there is something actually horrible about all of this. But this is a film allergic to horrible thoughts. Zhao has insisted, with a disingenuous that makes my stomach churn, that this film which opens with a title card situating the plot in the wake of the 2008 recession, and which is bookended by the Christmastime availability of jobs at an Amazon warehouse, giving Fern just enough money to make it to the next temporary gig, is not meant to be political. Now, there's nobody who will defend the right of artists to make apolitical art more fervently than I, but when your film is literally wall-to-wall monologues about the material effects of poverty, and when your film includes glamor shots of the outside of an Amazon warehouse that make it glow with the same mythic potency of a sunset over the badlands, you have given up the ability to do that (even making it a fictional Amazon knock-off, I could stomach. But a company as balls-to-the-wall evil as Amazon, no, there a line must be drawn). A genuinely apolitical Nomadland would behave extremely differently than the one we've gotten; it would absolutely be better. It would be able to present the conflict between "I like driving around and seeing the beautiful sights" and "but it might be nice to have a permanent house" as something compelling, rather than an appalling farce that suggests that utter, decimating poverty somehow makes you a noble soul. Look, I have been broke. Never "I might not have a place to live next month" broke, thank Christ. But "I will be eating buttered noodles for every meal this week" broke, for sure. It is a fucking horrible place to be. To pretend that it's "freeing" enough that someone might actually choose to live under those circumstances, that is a nightmarish hell scenario presented by people who have, I will charitably assume, completely unconsciously made a film about homelessness that is in its entirety an apologia for the meat grinder of neoliberal capitalism. "It's sad, but they live beautiful lives". Fuck you, fuck you all the way into oblivion.

The real fucking hell of it is that it is beautiful. Zhao is a filmmaker who I view at this point with insurmountable skepticism, after she has made the individual film that made me angriest in a given calendar year twice - though in honesty, Nomadland has made me feel like I was too hard on The Rider. At the very least, by casting a non-actor as a version of himself, that film grasps onto a kind of rough-and-tumble authenticity that makes its look at rundown people feel true to life. By anchoring itself around McDormand's heavily manicured, actorly performance (typified by a scene where she pantomimes shitting into a bucket, the kind of aggressively naturalistic moment that cannot help but feel deeply inauthentic and workshopped, as a way of proving that the movie star is Unashamed and Brave), Nomadland feels deeply artificial and aloof. This is especially true given that McDormand is, throughout the film, set alongside everyday humans simply sharing their true stories, drawing maximum attention to how Fern is a artificial construct whose presence seems to cheapen the lives of the actual nomads by reducing them to set dressing in a relatively banal drama. But as I was saying, I'll never heard the phrase "a Chloé Zhao film" without shuddering, I suspect, but I have to give her credit where it's due: for a transparent Terrence Malick acolyte (and short of titling the thing Days of Nomad Heaven or The Tree of Nomadland, I don't know how much more transparent it could be that she wanted to make this her Terrence Malick film), she's exceptionally good at it. Wannabe Malicks are a dime a dozen; Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards actually have the goods, making a film that's like one-fifth golden hour shots feel natural and unfussy about it, while planting Fern and her van as small little blips against the smooth flow of the land. This isn't a good thing, necessarily: Malick is an apolitical filmmaker, and when he points his camera at a Sonic in To the Wonder, he really does managed to render it a purely aesthetic object, detached from commercialism or the food industry or the destruction of the natural world. Whether it is good for him to have done so is not the point. Zhao pointing her camera at the Amazon sign isn't doing that; it's just making Amazon look pretty.

Still, props must be given: Nomadland sure does look gorgeous as hell. It makes the badlands look gorgeous, it makes the legendary kitsch waystation Wall Drug look gorgeous, it makes the cramped interior of a van with a shit-bucket look homey and snug, it makes the decaying ruins of a company town look like a ghost of domestic quietude and contentment. It does nothing with this gorgeousness other than prop up its trivial nods to the mythology of the American frontier, but it does it. It at least makes it nice to look at the film, in its glassy, surface-level engagement with the humanity of its subjects, who are reduced to delivering vague, aphoristic declarations about the difficulty but also the dignity of their lives, and who have been very carefully arranged in the final cut to avoid ugly emotions - even when they suggest loss or sadness, the film renders that in a poetic, hauntingly romanticised way. Meanwhile, McDormand gets to play-act at being an exhausted, grubby, desperately impoverished poor person, with every one of her choices landing as a choice and not the inescapable reality of her character. For a film that revels in the realness of its subject matter and the realness of its images, the whole thing feels hollow: as brittle and empty as an eggshell.

Verily, it is the film we deserve right now.