Review: “Nomadland”

Frances McDormand plays Fern in  Chloé Zhao's "Nomadland," reviewed here by Critic Speak critic Danny Baldwin.Critics who write with their politics first have all too conveniently positioned “Nomadland,” the Oscar frontrunner of the case-sensitive Moment, as an indictment of individualism. But that’s frankly too easily; to position Frances McDormand’s Fern as a squeaky cog in the dirty machine of American capitalism is, frankly, to deny the real nuance of the performance that everybody’s liberally championing (pun intended). Instead, the movie is richest as both a deconstruction of the idea that individualism comes easy, and an open-minded exploration of why we’re nonetheless still drawn to individualist narratives.

In other words, “Nomadland” is the rebuttal to the “Wild” and “Eat Pray Love” school of individualism, the Live Laugh Love generation’s superficial rekindling of the Beat ethos they flirted with in their 20s while still living in gated communities and clinging to their 401(k)s. In McDormand’s Fern, a sixty-something widow who lives out of the back of a $5,000 van as she traverses American landscapes both desolate and majestic, the movie soberly recognizes the truly fine line between self-realization and survival.

This recognition – that soul-searching Fern is an odd job’s paycheck away from being stranded in the desert without a rescuer in sight – makes it easy to read the movie as being about the lack of an American social safety net. That the movie opens on cards that briefly tell us the story of Empire, Nevada, a mining town that was abandoned overnight as demand for sheetrock waned, shuttering the mine, makes it even easier. But to default to such a read ignores the most compelling aspect of filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s treatment of the subject matter: that Fern, one of the exiled residents of Empire, doesn’t see herself as a victim. As she says herself, she likes to work, and much of the time, she’s just looking for her next job to keep on moving.

Fern isn’t particularly concerned about where she fits in, either – in society or in life. Her journey of self-discovery may simply be to realize that one never truly discovers thyself. She’s offered a place to stay by her upper-crust sister and, later in the movie, a friend from the road who quietly yearns to be more. It’s a rare recognition of the power of charity in a genre where leaving your protagonist completely option-less is perhaps the more dramatically compelling option. But Fern, who may come across as an enigma to some and a woman of her own mind to others – two things that are often in fact the same – goes her own way.

For some, ascribing a strong politic to the movie may be a way of grappling with its agnosticism, but for me, its ambivalence is among its most engaging attributes. Not just in terms of what this says about our current political moment – far more complex than a partisan screed – but also in terms of the protagonist herself. So many films that have treaded similar terrain, ranging from superficial self-discovery anthems like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to raw and affecting activist poems like “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Florida Project,” orient themselves in sympathy for the lead. And while Fern may garner a great deal of sympathy from many, the effectiveness of “Nomadland” doesn’t hinge on feeling for her – rather, it’s about respecting the innate truth of her journey.

In fact, much of the movie’s weight doesn’t even come from Fern’s direct experience, but rather, how she processes what she learns from those around her. Writer/director Zhao again employs the technique she used in her similarly acclaimed “The Rider,” in which non-actors play versions of themselves, meaning Fern largely interacts with actual nomads. She spends a lot of time listening to their stories. Most have been driven to this lifestyle – and an unquenchable thirst for discovery – by the traumas of ordinary existence. Another one of the myths of individualism Zhao deconstructs, in the process, is that truth comes entirely from within; rather, it’s often informed by our unique interaction with others’ lived experiences.

All this said, my focus on the ideological elements of the movie deflects from the fact that it’s deeply engaging as a human drama. Perhaps most impressive in this regard is how Zhao, McDormand, and the rest of the cast are seemingly able to give these people and places a backstory with so little actively established. A split second in which David Strathairn’s Dave drops a box of china is perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming movie moment of the year – and what we’ve been told about the sentimental value of the shattered plates inside, up to this point, spans no more than a few sentences. A later scene in which Dave tells Fern about his regrets as a father feels like it’s informed by far more exposition than we’re actually given, in the best kind of way.

There are times where it feels like “Nomadland” could stand to syntactically experiment a bit more. Right down to its precise narrative bookends, the movie often feels handsomely constructed to a fault, constrained in ways you wouldn’t expect a non-studio filmmaker like Zhao to be. But its formal rigor also gives it a splendid visual palette – equal parts Malick and Aronofsky, and several notches above the drab “Winter’s Bone” or “Frozen River”-type aesthetic that this kind of kaleidoscope of sad, wide open spaces could have easily fallen back on. While the movie is easily accessible on Hulu if theaters near you aren’t open, you won’t regret seeing it on the big screen if you’re able to.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *