on: Nomadland

Synopsis: A year in the life of Fern (Frances McDormand), a modern day nomad. Rendered houseless by the Great Recession of 2008 and the closure of the gypsum mine that sustained her entire town, she leads an itinerant life in her van, picking up odd jobs all across America and sustaining herself however she can.

1. I’ll get straight to the point. Nomadland is not just one of the best movies of the year (maybe even decade), but an urgent and important document of the times we live in, made even more necessary by the upheavals caused by the ongoing pandemic. Writer-editor-director Chloe Zhao has created a work of stunning genius, an auteurist work of art that contains multitudes. Nomadland is a critique of the global economic system, an urgent plea that dignifies those among us living on the margins, a reminder of nature’s sublime power, an existential meditation on what it means to live – it is all this and more, wrapped up in a tidy 108 minute package that somehow manages to be intimately personal and hugely sprawling. There are rare moments when I sit in a darkened room and feel in every fibre in my being the incomparable power of cinema as an art form, not as cynical entertainment or content created by an unyielding capitalist machine, but as a labour of love brought forth into being by creators who are both inspired and inspiring. Nomadland is one of those moments.

2. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you will know that I like to conduct a thought experiment called ‘what would the shitty version of this movie look like?’ Nomadland invites this thought experiment more than any other movie I’ve seen recently (possibly since Parasite), because there are so many ways it could have gone wrong. An example – Fern starts the movie working short term at Amazon, and I braced myself for what I felt was the inevitable heavy-handed ‘fuck Bezos’ moment. (1) You know the one. Maybe Fern gets hurt and is immediately sent back to work. Maybe someone talks about unions and is fired. Maybe Fern’s pay gets docked for mislabeling a package. Instead, we get … nothing. It’s a job. Nothing more, nothing less. This is not to say that the movie is pro-corporate propaganda (far from it), just that Zhao understands that it is enough to show (not tell) that people cannot survive on the temporal subsistence wages that Amazon provides, and that injustice is more than enough. This refusal to put lipstick on a pig (to quote an odious woman) runs throughout Nomadland, which never falls prey to the kind of cheap emotional manipulation a lesser film might do to underline (and eventually undermine) its point. Similarly, I found it thoroughly refreshing that no one is melodramatically nasty to Fern. Much like the last movie I reviewed, Zhao understands on a fundamental level that this life is hard enough as it is, and that throwing in Hollywood-obvious antagonists would not only be inauthentic, but detract from the real issues at hand.

3. Zhao’s subtlety of touch can also be seen in her hands-off, non-judgmental style. There is a documentary-like tone to the film, helped by Zhao’s decision to cast many of the real life ‘nomads’ who inspired this movie in key supporting roles. Many of its best scenes are when the camera sits, in close-up, simply watching and listening as they tell their stories of where they came from and how they chose the nomadic lifestyle. And make no mistake, it is a lifestyle. Nomadland is a film remarkably free of condescension. These are not people to be pitied, but instead, are active agents who have made a conscious decision to live the way they do. The absence of Ken Loach (2) style misery porn is extremely appreciated, and it’s telling how much Zhao gives emphasis to the community wisdom that sprouts up around the motley crew of nomads in the desert. This is a group of people with agency, knowledge and understanding, and it is constantly reiterated how valuable their life experiences are (and conversely, how ignored these experiences are by mainstream society). Knowledge in this film can be categorised into two categories – the personal and the communal, with the former tending towards abstract beauty and the latter tending towards practical advice. Both types are given equal priority by the film, and it’s telling that a scene where a character tells others about which bucket is best to shit in is filmed with the same warmth and tenderness as a scene where another character tells Fern about the greatest experience of her life. In a film suffused with great wisdom, this is perhaps the best of the lot, a message close to David Foster Wallace’s ‘This Is Water’ that tells us that the humdrum everyday aspects of living can be as meaningful as the transcendental moments.

One of those moments of transcendence

4. These life experiences are also cleverly conveyed through the deftness and subtlety of the film’s screenplay. A pet peeve of mine is with filmgoers who confuse ‘best’ with ‘most’ (e.g. best editing is most editing, best acting is most acting), and Nomadland is an excellent example of how the best writing can often be the least. Fern is a taciturn sort (which makes the impact of her big Oscar monologue at the end hit even harder), and large stretches of Nomadland pass by with little to no dialogue. Instead, the strength of Nomadland’s screenplay is in how beautifully structured it is – a circular narrative punctuated by brief moments (seasonal changes, holidays) that mark time for the viewer and for Fern. There is an languidness to proceedings that could be all too easily mistaken for aimlessness, were it not for the fact that Nomadland is one of those movies that is less interested in heading somewhere than being in the moment. There are numerous scenes interspersed throughout the movie of Fern simply enjoying the natural beauty of the North American continent – she floats naked down a stream, touches a massive uprooted tree, calls her name out into a howling canyon. In these moments, Nomadland resembles less a work of narrative cinema than a capital-R Romantic poem, all aflutter in the face of nature’s sublimity. And yet, these are only ever moments, perfectly timed (why yes, the editing in this movie is as masterful as everything else) to be nothing more than brief bursts of transcendence in a cycle of mundanity and prosaicness. But by sprinkling them throughout, the film lets the viewer know that this is why Fern chooses the life she does. Not for nothing does Zhao write in two scenes where Fern is tempted by offers of secure domestic bliss, the sort of comfortable American existence that a lesser film would use as the ultimate prize for all of its protagonist’s suffering. But Nomadland is far too canny and clever for that, conveying the message that the real ‘reward’ (if there can ever be said to be any in life) for Fern is in her freedom, her unique experiences, and her community of nomads.

5. As for the woman playing Fern … look, it’s Frances McDormand. She’s an international treasure. She’s one of the greatest actors of all time. It is not even remotely surprising that this is a stellar performance, because McDormand can do that in her sleep. All the hallmarks of a typical McDormand performance are there – the headstrong abrasiveness, the quirky charm, the folksy wisdom. In many ways, Zhao is using McDormand as shorthand, without the knotty deconstruction of her typical screen persona that something like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri previously did. As such, this would not count as one of McDormand’s best performances, certainly not on the level of Fargo or the aforementioned Three Billboards. This is not a slight on the film, because it’s not a traditional protagonist-driven narrative film. Fern is more of an observer and a listener, and McDormand plays her as a closely guarded person, holding her grief close to her chest until the final few scenes. Nomadland is very much a film about grief and its consequences, and in the few scenes McDormand has talking or thinking about Fern’s dead husband and town, she sells it beautifully. However, Nomadland understands that grief is not just love persevering (3), but something much bigger – an absence or a void at the centre of things, and this plays out in the way that Fern always keeps herself at arm’s length, including from a would-be romance with David Strathairn’s Dave, who like McDormand brings a simultaneous sense of rueful regret and twinkling joy to his performance. Aside from McDormand and Strathairn, the real-life nomads bring a real authenticity to proceedings, grounding the movie and reminding the viewer that even if it is a work of fiction, it is very much based on the reality that they live.

McDormand with two of the nomads, Linda May and Swankie

6. I could really go on and on about this film (and I have!), but that’s because there is just so much to unpack here. Nomadland is a movie that could be returned to many times, with its surface-level unhurriedness hiding a wealth of detail and thematic depth. It feels cheap to laud this as a triumph of auteurist cinema due to the film’s neo-realist inclinations and the filmmakers’ method of immersing themselves in the lives of its subjects, but Nomadland heralds the rise of an astronomical talent in Chloe Zhao, possibly heralding her as the heir to Terence Malick in the way that she composes and films her work with sensitivity, nuance, delicacy, and grandeur. (4) I cannot possibly encapsulate Nomadland into the however many words I’ve already used up, which just makes it even more stunning how Zhao and her collaborators have captured so many things in their movie, from a single life to a whole community to even entire economic and natural systems. The left-wing part of me somewhat wishes that Zhao could have been a little more strident with her societal critique, but all that means nothing when looking at how brilliantly she has threaded the needle between cinema as message and cinema as simply a mirror held up against the world. Nomadland is a transcendental film, and absolutely necessary viewing for anyone who sees cinema as more than just commercial product. It takes you on a journey into the deepest wilds of nature and into the darkest recesses of the heart. It is a work of art, and simply awe-inspiring to behold. Watch it now.

Nomadland is currently playing in American and Singaporean cinemas.

  1. In all seriousness and sincerity though? Fuck Bezos.
  2. Look, I appreciate the guy, but we can surely all agree it’s a bit much, right?
  3. Ok, it’s a good line, but we can also all agree that it’s a tad simplistic, no?
  4. And just like that, she gets snapped up by the Marvel machine, with her next film being Eternals. Here’s hoping she does what James Gunn and Taika Waititi did and stamps her own unique voice on it.






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