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Nomadland

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/08/21 03:44:52

"Hits a spot that few movies seldom even see."
5 stars (Awesome)

For as much good reason as there is not to go to theaters right now, there's some small consolation in how it gives something like "Nomadland" some time on a multiplex's Imax screen that it would not normally be afforded with new blockbusters coming out weekly. It's beautifully shot, yes, but seeing it like that makes it all-enveloping, and seeing it after a month and a half of theaters not being open reminds one how a movie built for immersion can hit differently when not limited to the size of one's TV.

The nomad of the title is Fern (Frances McDormand); she and her late husband never had kids and had settled in a Nevada company town that completely disintegrated when said company closed the gypsum mine. She's converted a van to live in and is parking it near the Amazon fulfillment center where she's found work, but all the Christmas music on the soundtrack in the early going suggests that it might be seasonal. A co-worker tells her about an annual gathering people living a similar life in Arizona which acts as both support system and education, so she heads there and makes some new friends - notably Dave (David Strathairn), who trades extra can openers for potholders - and then heads out for the next adventure.

As with filmmaker ChloƩ Zhao's previous features, she blurs the line between traditional narrative and non-fiction filmmaking here, even more so than in The Rider, with much of the movie feeling like fly-on-the-wall documentary, especially since it's not really time to unlock Frances McDormand's Fern yet, meaning that she spends a lot of time hanging around people with stories to tell and wisdom to impart, and it's something Zhao and McDormand handle exceptionally well. McDormand immerses herself in this world and is able to emerge seeming like part of it such that Fern's eccentricities and discomfort with conventional life never feel like performance or put-on. The veteran actress never feels like she's imitating the working-class folks around her, but she's also able to make the little adjustments necessary as a story starts to form.

That story is inevitably going to be tied to David Strathairn's eponymous character, and the audience can kind of guess that when Strathairn shows up; he's familiar in a way nobody else Fern meets is. But the fact that she merges with the non-actors and he sticks out is something Zhao uses; the way he knows how to connect to an audience means Dave-the-character connects to her, and as we see this world through her eyes, he shines just a little brighter. Just a little - he is never far off the film's wavelength - but Zhao knows the effect he has, and mines the pleasure of seeing a much-appreciated character actor show up in a film a few times and has it work each time. That McDormand and Strathairn approach their jobs in different ways but each serves their characters' rootlessness in a way that fits means that as much as the audience inevitably enjoys them together, we also see how it might just not work.

Both manage to immerse themselves in this world without much ego, and that's necessary, because the documentary side to this film demands respect. It doesn't work if Zhao can't step back and recognize that this life fits these people's needs even if the circumstances that led them there often means that they have been failed in some way. There's empathy but not pity for these people that she mostly allows to just be themselves on screen, and love for both the wide-open country and honest work surrounding them. Zhao doesn't romanticize this life - I suspect she included three or four scenes about relieving oneself in awkward situations to drive home that it isn't necessarily fun in very basic ways - but she does find beauty in things that many in the audience have likely walled themselves off from in the name of safety and comfort.

And there is a lot of beauty here; when Zhao and cinematographer aren't pointing the camera at something beautiful - just look at the Badlands in this movie - they're catching the ends of days, either during the golden hour or with the sun setting in the background. It lends either bare parking lots or deserts a sort of warm glow that reflects the people Fern finds there, who are generally kind despite being weathered and disappointed. Ludovico Einaudi's score contributes to that as well - it's simple, but firm, never trying to do too much or impress with subtlety.

As a snapshot, "Nomandland" is appealing without trying to be convincing, but it's not just about a different way of life. By the end, Zhao and McDormand have communicated just how it can feel to be unable to either stay put or let go, and though few will act upon that feeling in this fashion, there is something universal to that, especially when presented with what feels like less artifice than usual.

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