2020 | rated R | starring Frances MacDormand and David Strathairn | written for the screen and directed by Chloe Zhao | 1 hr 47 mins |
In 2011, amid a global recession the US Gypsum manufacturing plan shut down taking with it the jobs and lifeblood of Empire, Nevada. Soon after the zip code was discontinued and Empire literally wiped off the map. One victim of this is Fern (Frances MacDormand) who finds herself living out of her van and working seasonally at an Amazon fulfillment plant until one day she is invited to meet a group of people in the Nevada desert who are part of a nomad community. A group of retirees in their 60s and over who have decided that they are too old to work and too active to sit in the house, instead spending their twilight years living off the land and seeing America’s natural beauties.
Nomadland is one of those movies that is easy to admire conceptionally and interesting to talk about, both as a cultural time machine and as a piece of filmmaking, but actually watching the movie is a choir. It is a swing for the fences by filmmaker/editor Chloe Zhao, but it is also so out on it’s own as a piece of pure cinema that, without any story structure or artificial drama as a hand-rail to guide us along, it requires the audience to have nothing less than a full blown existential experience for it to work. At all. If you aren’t moved to re-evaluate your entire life by it’s human stories and natural beauty – and I wasn’t – then Nomadland will be a complete drag without an end in sight.
I’m not opposed to this kind of plotless character exploration. One of my favorite things in a movie is to be dropped into a lived-in experience and get to experience a different way of life. I don’t think the film – aside from a few choice set pieces – is as beautiful as it thinks it is. It’s desert setting is absolutely barren. Instead of pulling together a symphony of visuals and music, Zhao is less making a piece of pure cinema and more a documentary. Halfway through it becomes clear that the way everyone is talking is unnaturally natural for a film. They have to – and they indeed are – real people that MacDormand is interacting with. Like a Borat film (but one that doesn’t look down on it’s subjects with sneering condescension, but interest and compassion), MacDormand and co-star David Strathairn are two actors dropped into an environment of real people sharing their stories. Zhao’s nearly seamless blend of the real and the scripted worlds is close to a modern movie magic trick. That’s not to say it’s unprecedented, that is after all how 1969’s Medium Cool and your occasional Richard Linklater movie runs, but it’s still fun to see this kind of cinema verite being practiced.
It’s use of real people isn’t the only thing Nomadland has in common with 2010’s Up in the Air. Both films serving as a time capsule on a human level for the employment crisis created by the 2008 financial meltdown. Up in the Air is a cynical movie but still exists in a world where unemployment is traumatic but has options. Nomadland is a more caring but also more hopeless movie about a group of people whose job is their entire life and they can no longer restart somewhere else.
The question then becomes to what end? Nomadland doesn’t sign-post any progress. It has no structure, it has no satisfying character arcs or growth. MacDormand becomes a bystander to the stories of the nomads for most of the running time and, call me jaded, but it’s not particularly funny or touching in any measure. There is a lot about the filmmaking here that I respect, but at the end of the day Nomadland is more like a painting hanging in a museum to passively admire than a film to emotionally engage with.
Nomadland will go down as the Academy Award Best Picture winner of 2020, a year when everyone realized how little they needed to go to the movies in their life.