It is a bit strange, perhaps just a by-product of the inevitable bubble that forms when you are in isolation, but I had never heard of this film before it started hoovering up awards. Usually the Oscar-bait is out in my country around January/February, so it tends to rocket up the attention charts at that time, but in the absence of that traditional season it was only after it made all of its gong headlines that I was made aware of Chloe Zhao’s feature. And, truth be told, it isn’t something I would probably have gone hugely out of my way to see in normal circumstances either, seeming to me to be one of those sorts of movies trying a bit too hard to appeal to academy voters, with a strong whiff of misery-porn at the same time.
But Nomadland is one of those films that I happen to have already paid to see, what with Disney’s absorption of Fox Searchlight and my Disney+ account. As such I was inclined to give it a bit more notice than I might otherwise have done, and what I saw was undoubtedly interesting: only a few actual actors, a lot of “As Him/Herself” additions and a premise that cuts to the heart of the realities inherent with late stage capitalism. On the other hand, much like its main character I suppose, Nomadland also looked a little directionless and unsure of what message it wanted to deliver, at least from the promotional materials I saw. Was it every bit the medium-defining entry of the year? Or just another Bohemian Rhapsody, here to get its statuettes before everyone realises the truth?
Fern (Frances McDormand), having lost her livelihood and her home to the Great Recession, becomes a modern-day nomad, living in her van and travelling between short-term jobs throughout the year. Her journey through the American West brings her into contact with a great number of disparate people in a similar situation, supporting each other as best they can, as she considers what she wants her future to be.
I think I do often find myself saying that a film is “interesting”, which can probably be misinterpreted on its own. It’s the kind of thing you say about a project that you didn’t like, but don’t want to slate too much. But it really does fit here. Nomadland is an interesting movie, telling the story of a very unique topic in a very interesting way. It’s the sort of film I would very easily recommend for that reason alone. But it wasn’t a film that I can say I really enjoyed as much as so many others have. I suppose I have fallen into the trap. I didn’t especially like Nomadland, but I don’t want to slate it too much either.
The heart of the issue that I have might just be that this isn’t a piece of dramatised reality, it’s a factual picture. It just so happens that the person we are following around on this documentary journey is fictional. Like a deadly-serious Borat, Frances McDormand’s Fern travels around America, hitting Amazon distribution centres, trailer parks, ghost towns, extremes of weather and extremes of human kindness, and she does it all while meeting real people who are, quite literally, playing themselves. They outline their stories, what drove them to their existence, they talk about their trauma in the past and whatever hopes they have for the future. If Fern had a mike and a camera you’d be taking Best Documentary for Nomadland, not Best Picture (apparently at least some of the people who “star” in the film were unaware McDormand was an actor, which raises all sorts of ethical questions for me).
This inevitably, in my eyes, results in the film having a very odd, and frankly uneasy, feel to it. It’s very hard to marry this kind of faux-documentation with what we can describe as a character study of Fern, at least when the contrast isn’t being used for comedy purposes. I found some of the documentary part of affairs to be very moving, in moments where Fern allows some of the people she meets on the road – remember, people playing themselves – to talk about their lives. There’s a on old woman with a terminal diagnosis re-tracing steps of previous journeys, a man who helps others in the nomad lifestyle because of his grief for a son who took his own life, a youngster who is scared of committing to a woman and a grounded life and is thus considering a different outcome on the open road. Anyone of these moments is effecting enough, and Nomadland is a powerful way for these people to talk about their lives and the manner in which they have come to consciously choose to forgo a life in a house.
But then the dramatisation part of things consistently cuts in, and I felt almost like I was watching an unwelcome voyeur in the form of Fern, looking in on these real people and their real lives and their real pains, while undertaking her own fictional life and fictional problems (of course it’s based on real events, but Fern’s more personal plot is far more “based on a true story” in depiction than the rest of the film’s more literal and real “characters”). She has her own soul-searching to do, now absent a deceased husband, with what was their home now a ghost town when the local mine shut and struggling to get by on the road, between flat tires and bad weather. McDormand is great, her usual understated self, settling in to the part and the easy camaraderie she has with others. She has an ability to portray pain and emotional fatigue that I think only Mads Mikkelsen is able to replicate in the profession. It helps the character that she also has recurring interactions with David Strathairn, the only other actor of consequence in the production, whose Dave constitutes a sort-of quasi-love interest/road not taken for Fern. That plot is depicted in simple, but effective terms, with Dave another traveler on the road with some deep wells behind him we only get to really touch on all too briefly.
But, it just doesn’t fit with what the rest of Nomadland is. When, near the end of the film, some of the “cast” sit around a fire and mourn a recently dead comrade, Fern’s involvement feels fundamentally wrong, a Cuckoo in a nest of all-too real anguish and attempting to make that anguish something noble. The dichotomy was just too much for me to handle. I would have liked Nomadland the documentary or Nomadland the drama, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like Nomadland, the docudrama. Like Operation Varsity Blues, it’s a mesh that too often ends up creating something that is worst of both worlds and best of none.
The other thing is that I had trouble grasping just what point the film was trying to make with its main character, especially at the end. It’s a literal year in the life of Fern, as she goes from winter all the way round to another one, beginning in the newly ghosted town of Empire and ending there too. In the interim we get the portrait of a woman who, having put down roots once before and saw them destroyed, seems inherently unable to put down more. Fern returns to Empire in the conclusion of the piece, to wander through its deserted streets, workplaces and her own home. I sense that Zhao is trying to imbue a feeling that you can’t go home again, not after what Fern has been through, but the presentation felt needlessly obtuse, and more in the line of something trying to appear full of depth than actually having it.
The film, for me, is a pretty savage takedown on capitalism and everything that results from it. Much has been made of how Zhao was able to get cameras inside an actual Amazon warehouse without giving that behemoth both barrels – it’s depicted instead as decent seasonal work, with Fern impressed with the money she is able to make there – but the larger scope of the picture is undeniably hostile to the sort of socio-economic state that Amazon is representative of. It’s a world where the old and the nearly-old, their safety nets destroyed by factors far outside of their control, choose to live a precarious existence on the road, with the state that is meant to care for them looking the other way. Zhao may not mention Trump or the 1% directly, but all we need is a glare Fern gives her estate agent brother-in-law to get the subtext.
Other than that, it’s a pretty savage depiction of loss, whether it is the human kind or the home kind, with everyone encountered in the course of Nomadland carrying some kind of loss with them. In some cases they are fleeing from that pain, others – those who embrace the lifestyle out of a desire for independence, to be able to “take care of your own shit” – deal with it better. This fluid lifestyle, where you never say goodbye to the loved or lost, just that you will “see them down the road” has a natural appeal. Nomadland has no shortage of such themes with which to try and play around with, and sometimes it does say some very timely and engaging things, but it never is able to get beyond the above-mentioned issue: shots at the ruined American Dream just don’t land right when the film can’t get clear in what kind of presentation it wants to make those shots. It also undercuts itself pretty decisively with certain aspects of the narrative, namely that both Fern and Dave, the two fictional nomads, have the option to live under a roof if they so choose, Fern with her well-off sister and Dave with his son’s family: this makes the characters look pretty bad next to the real people who lack such access to privilege.
Nomadland does look good. I’m not terribly familiar with Zhao, but she directs a visually engaging production, one that is at pains to capture the fullness of the American interior, in every desert, every snowstorm, every sea vista and in every little scrap of nowhere that becomes home to a horde of camper vans and RV’s. The style of documentary is evident in many dialogue heavy scenes, with only those involving fully fictionalised characters carrying the sort of framing you would expect from something nominally outside of that genre. In a way I suppose this contributes to the feeling of disquiet that I described above, but it’s more dismissable I suppose. Zhao does a good job, in line with McDormand’s performance, of making us see how something like the cramped space of Fern’s vehicle can actually become a home, filled with the sort of accouterments and lived-in feeling that such a term requires, while leaving room for the realities of mobile living. It takes inspiration here and there – the closing frame seems a very deliberate nod to The Searchers for example – but forms a very pleasant cinematography piece. The humans are the small part of the world here: reflecting the experience of isolation brought on us by the pandemic, probably unintentionally (like Sea Fever), Nomadland finds something powerful to say here too.
Like I said at the top, I feel like the best that I can do for Nomadland is to come back to my “interesting” descriptor. The film is undoubtedly that, for its subject matter of nothing else: one suspects that the ranks of modern-day nomads are only likely to increase, and perhaps explode, after this one. McDormand is great, but of course you didn’t really need me to tell you that. But so much else of Nomadland simply did not work for me, the dual effort to be both drama and documentary being the biggest offender. I can understand why so many people have found Nomadland a captivating experience, but it wasn’t able to captivate me. That’s no sin of course, and there’s enough to appreciate in the film that I didn’t feel any resentment towards it. But it is not the be all and end all of 2021. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Searchlight Pictures).