Movie Review – Nomadland
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Premiering at the 45th Toronto International Film Festival, it won the 2020 People’s Choice Award. Often, and more often over the past two decades, the likelihood increases that a film that wins or is nominated for this award at TIFF goes on to be nominated for Oscars, particularly Best Picture. It also won the Golden Lion at the 77th Venice International Film Festival. It won Best Feature at the Gotham Awards. It was nominated for four, Golden Globe Awards. It was also nominated for five Spirit Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Director, Best Female Lead and Best Feature. Given the buzz and critical acclaim around this film, it’s likely to be nominated for those same or equivalent awards at the 93rd Academy Awards. It’s also likely to win at the Oscars in one of those categories. If it won in Best Picture, it would be absolutely warranted.
On a basic level, it’s a road trip film or a road movie. From The Grapes of Wrath (1940) to Green Book (2018), plenty of films have been made about a person or people in a car or some motor vehicle traveling along some paved path or highway. Plenty of independent films have done so because they’re cheap to make. Often, the point of a road trip is to be a temporary thing to help the characters get from one place to another and along the way grow as a person or grow in one’s relationship with someone else, either positively or negatively, usually positively. This film, written and directed by Chloé Zhao, adapting a book by Jessica Bruder, doesn’t make the so-called road trip a temporary thing. Here, the road trip isn’t just a crutch or thing to help with life. Here, the road trip is the life itself.
Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Fargo) stars as Fern, a woman in her 60’s who is a widow. She used to be married to a man who worked for a mining company in Empire, Nevada. We find her in 2011, shortly after the real-life, USG Corporation shut down the mine and mining company, basically putting everyone in the town out of work, resulting in Empire becoming a ghost town. With her husband dead and no jobs, Fern started looking for work in different places, from Nevada to South Dakota and various points in between. Instead of settling in one place, she lives out of her van, which she stops in various RV parks.
She’s quick to point out that she’s not homeless. She’s just house-less. Her first job seems like a seasonal one at Amazon. However, once that job is over, she has to go find another. Before she does, she ends up at a camp for people living out of their vans and RVs. She learns there is a whole community of these people in Arizona who do so for various reasons. Most are either middle age or approaching middle-age. Some are retired. They all seem driven to explore the country, particular the area west of the Mississippi. At first, I thought the film was going to be akin to something like Captain Fantastic (2016), The Glass Castle (2017) and Leave No Trace (2018), but, for these people around Fern, what they’re doing isn’t driven by an ideology of nature conservation or environmentalism but a belief that a kind of spiritual freedom or emotional satisfaction comes from a rejection of traditional real estate.
It’s not as if they don’t believe in environmentalism, but environmentalism doesn’t seem to be the leading reason for what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. They simply want to live out of their small RV’s or vans. Presumably, this want comes from harsh economic conditions, stemming from the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008. A lot of people lost their jobs, their homes and their savings, so this van-dwelling life seems like a practical solution, which has now become a permanent way of being, or at least that’s the question. Is this way of being a temporary solution or is it a permanent fix?
This is Zhao’s third feature. Her previous feature, The Rider (2018), her second feature, put her on the map. There are a lot of things that are different about the two films, but a lot that’s similar too. Both are modern-day Westerns or Neo Westerns. Both are about Middle America or Rural America. In fact, Zhao shot a lot of this film in the same state as The Rider, that of South Dakota. That state’s Badlands National Park is prominently featured here. Both are about capturing the wide open expanses and landscapes. Both are about people doing things that others think they shouldn’t do. In The Rider, it’s more about the pursuit of an occupation. Here, it’s more about the pursuit of a lifestyle.
Zhao shoots this film in a very naturalistic way. She also incorporates some documentary techniques. If not for McDormand’s presence and the presence of Oscar-nominee David Strathairn, this film could be classified as a documentary. The majority of the cast consists of non-actors or people who are nomads in real life. Zhao did a similar thing in The Rider where she incorporated non-actors or regular people into a narrative that she concocts or crafts. McDormand’s scenes with them at times feel improvised or done on the fly. However, the film isn’t centered around the non-actors. It’s centered around McDormand who is lovely and heartbreakingly good in this role. Superb!
Rated R for full frontal nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.
In select theaters and on Hulu.