Will Menaker’s review published on Letterboxd:
When a movie plucks my heart strings so deftly, I always find myself wondering exactly how I'm getting played.
I liked this movie way more than I thought I would, which is only the product of my own prejudicial suspicion that it would be the kind of Oscar-bait movie that John Frakensteiner described in his review of it here as perfect "for rich assholes who hand out awards, who love to be told, 'Actually these poor people are happy in their minimalism. Hell, they might even be happier than you, with all your complicated possessions!' As they hand off the award to the daughter of a millionaire." I don't think that's what this movie is, but it's not NOT that either, for reasons that I don't think can be entirely blamed on the filmmakers.
There's something affected about Chloe Zhao's social realism and the way it leans incredibly hard on panoramic magic hour views of the stunning American Western landscape. It's incredibly effective at humanizing the lives of those in economic precarity, but does so at the expense of articulating, or some might say eliding, the social problems that lead them to lives of itinerant poverty in which the possibly of suicide haunts every frame and action. The focus on much of the writing around the movie about it's portrayal of Amazon's Dickensian fulfillment centers, which is a little beside the point as it's a tiny part of the film and I don't think it's the duty of Chloe Zhao or the story she's telling here to be the Upton Sinclair of the gig economy. I don't like this demand that all art has to portray the systemic rather than the personal, but at the same time would Amazon's corporate logo or actual property ever have been allowed to be anywhere near this film if it was portrayed in even a semi-negative light?
Thankfully, I found its ambiguous and melancholy ending didn't end up making the case that "actually, becoming a tramp, loosed from all social and economic bonds, is nice, and a way to really find yourself." It's an Oscar-bait tear jerker, and the kind I usually hate because of intimations about "the way we live now", but also a good, artistically credible film that did indeed jerk those tears out me.
Finally, Frances McDormand will probably win her third(?) best actress for this one, and it's richly deserved. She's one of the finest actors of our lifetimes, and she gives an incredible performance here, truly in another class. Frances is God Tier and that's not debatable. Also, always a true joy to see David Strathairn, who probably should have gotten a supporting actor nom for this one.