NomadlandReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/12/21 11:34:25
I must confess that I was not particularly eager to sit down and watch “Nomadland” when the opportunity first presented itself last fall. This, I should point out, was not meant as a slight towards either writer-director Chloe Zhao, whose “The Rider” was justifiably celebrated when it came out a couple of years ago, or star Frances McDormand, whose bona fides hopefully require no further explanation. No, it was the film’s premise that set me off a bit. To hear reduced to a couple of sentences, it sounds like one of those films about people trying to come to terms with things that are as noble as can be but which ultimately prove to be a bit of a chore to sit through—the kind of film that one admires more than actually enjoys. Of course, the combination of professional obligation and its early status as a potential leader in the current award season ensured that I would put my misgivings aside and finally sit sown and watch it. I am glad that I did because rather than the well-meaning stiff that I feared it might be, it proved to be one of the year’s most engrossing and thought-provoking films featuring one of the very best performances to boot.Loosely inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name, “Nomadland”tells the story of Fern (McDormand), a woman who currently finds herself unmoored from the world around her, both figuratively and literally. Having spent most of her life working at a sheetrock plant in a Nevada company town with her husband, she has now lost her husband to illness and the economic downturn has not only cost her her job and her company home but the very town where she lived and which essentially folded after the closing of the plant. Now she lives in her van, sleeping wherever she can park without getting chased away, and picking up work wherever she can find it—at various points, we see her toiling away at an Amazon warehouse, picking beets and waitressing at the legendary South Dakota tourist trap Wall Drug.
Still getting used to the ins and outs of the lifestyle of the contemporary nomad, Fern falls in with a group of other people who have, voluntarily or otherwise, embraced the wanderer lifestyle. It is here that she picks up valuable survival tips and becomes a member of the community, eventually passing on her own knowledge to newcomers herself. While the existence is undeniably tough at times, it also seems to a sparked a sense of independence in Fern that she either never knew she had or which had been buried for too long. Something about being out and about with no obvious ties frees something in her to the point where when she is offered the chance to regain some of what she lost—mostly through her connection with Dave (David Strathairn), another nomad who is clearly taken with her and, after finally deciding to get off the road for good and settle down again, hopes that she will join him. Fern is torn—despite her somewhat standoffish attitude towards him, she clearly likes Dave and what he has to offer is appealing, but perhaps not as appealing as the new life she has carved out for herself.
I think that a good deal of my initial resistance to the idea of “Nomadland” comes from the fact that a basic description of the film—the one that I have offered above included—makes it sound a lot more conventional than it is and does little to suggest the very things that make it so special. Although the film is ostensibly a fictional story, Zhao’s screenplay is definitely on the minimalist side when it comes to narrative concerns and there are very few big story moments—the kind that look good as clips on award shows and which neatly sum up the film’s ultimate message. Instead, she utilizes a documentary-like approach that quietly and unobtrusively observes Fern as she goes about her life, chronicling everything from the exhaustion of spending days working at menial jobs for low pay and nights in a cold, cramped van to the lighter moments in which she interacts with other members of the nomad community or, even better, when she is able to just sit down and relax for a few minutes. Adding to the sense of verisimilitude is Zhao’s smart decision to populate the film with non-actors—in many cases utilizing some of the real people that Bruder wrote about in her book—and her equally canny selection of locations that suggest both the beauty of the country that Fern is now traveling through and just how tough and unforgiving it can be for those who have fallen through the holes in the safety net.
As for McDormand, she delivers one of the great performances in a career that is not exactly hurting for such things. While there have been times in the past when she has sometimes gone a little too far in order to show off her acting prowess (her work in “Three Billboards” being case in point), her work here is so quietly felt and close to the bone that if you went into the film not knowing who she was, there is an excellent chance that you would think that she was another non-actor recruited by Zhao. There is never a moment here where she comes across as anything less than 100% authentic, whether it is one of her occasional moments of good cheer or the bit where she struggles to avoid letting on to Dave about how much some dishes that he has accidentally broken means to her. Whether working opposite an equally talented actor like Strathairn or any of the non-professionals or simply on her own, there is never a moment when you sense that you are seeing anyone other than Fern. Until seeing this movie, I, like so many others, would have regarded her performance in “Fargo” as the unquestioned highpoint of her illustrious career without hesitation. With this performance, however, there is the distinct possibility that she has managed to top herself.“Nomadland” is one of the very best films of 2020, one that works as both a compelling and eye-opening look at a segment of American society that is too often kept to the margins and as the study of one of the most fascinating characters to serve as the center of an American film in a while. This is a work that is funny, moving, always surprising. and suffused with a sense of quiet humanity towards its characters that will remind some of the late Jonathan Demme at his peak. That said, Chloe Zhao proves here, for those still skeptical, that she is indeed the real deal and one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Of course, the fact that her next projects are the Marvel Studios offering “Eternals” and a new Dracula film may inspire worry that she might wind up becoming another interesting director swallowed up by the blockbuster machine. However, based on her work thus far, if ever there was a filmmaker who seemed to be capable of delving into unfamiliar areas without losing what made them so unique in the process, it is her
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