“Year-end buzz” so much as it exists, is obviously rather messy this year for a variety of obvious reasons, but if there’s any movie that seems to have garnered a critical consensus as one of “the best of the year” it’s Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. Pretty much since the movie premiered at the (socially distanced) Venice Film Festival it’s been proclaimed one of the year’s best and the one to watch for award season. It had a solid trailer and a cool poster, but I must say I was still a little skeptical because Zhao’s last movie The Rider was similarly celebrated and while I didn’t dislike it and thought there was some interesting ideas behind it I ultimately wasn’t really as fascinated by its central character as some critics seemed to be and mostly found its semi-documentary nature to have some clear drawbacks. So I when I got an opportunity to get in on a limited virtual cinema screening of this I jumped on it but I went into it with cautious optimism more than anything as it was taking a similar yet not identical approach and covered vaguely similar subject matter.
The film follows a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who had lived with her husband in a town called Empire, Nevada, which had been almost entirely dependent on a nearby gypsum mine and had essentially been rendered a ghost town when that mine was closed during the recession. Left essentially homeless, Fern opted to live out of her van and join something of a loose community of outsiders who live out of vehicles and travel to various seasonal jobs that become available throughout the country like Amazon warehouse work during the holidays, grounds keeping at Badlands National park during the summer, and assisting with a potato harvest. Along the way she meets various other people living a similar lifestyle including a man named David (David Strathairn) as well as some even more colorful figures like Bob (real life van living guru Bob Wells) and a terminally ill woman named Swankie (Charlene Swankie). Over the course of the film we get a good idea about what Fern’s life is like, how she got to this point, and where it will go from here.
The notion of going off the grid and traveling through the back country has been something of a trope in American culture at least since Huckleberry Finn decided to “light out for the territory” and probably before that. In literature its given us works like “On the Road,” which posits such a trip as a youthful adventure, in cinema it’s given us stuff like Easy Rider which posits such escape as a rebellion against society, and Albert Brooks’ Lost In America shows such a trip as a misguided yuppie impulse that’s quickly abandoned. Here we look at people who are living the “life on the road” for reasons that are a bit more influenced by necessity rather than strictly matter of preference but which isn’t entirely forced on the characters either. In fact much of the film is built around exploring the question of just how much these characters’ lifestyle is forced on them by circumstance and how much it’s something they’re choosing for themselves based on preference and the answer to that is a little complicated. In the case of Fern you certainly get the impression that she never would have gone down this path if her husband hadn’t died and the Empire, Nevada community hadn’t folded, but she did have other options as well and wasn’t completely forced into living out of a van.
These sorts of semi-documentary slice of life anthropology type movies frequently don’t work for me but when they do work for me they tend to work for me quite a bit. Zhao’s last movie The Rider was one of the ones that didn’t particularly work for me. It certainly felt “real” but its story ultimately amounted to little more than a lo-fi redo of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it didn’t really amount to as much for me as it seemed to for others. This one worked a lot better for me, partly because it’s road-trip like format was generally more visually engaging but also because Zhao put Frances McDormand at the center of this one instead of a non-actor. There are non-actors used here in various supporting roles and they do add that aura of authenticity they’re meant to, but McDormand is better positioned to really create a character and show the audiences sides of the character without speaking. McDormand’s Fern looks authentic in this world and fits in with the non-actors but also manages to really capture the attention of the viewer and take then on an emotional trip with her.
Nomadland is a quiet movie and one that might necessarily be suited to the kind of “Oscar frontrunner” hype that people are putting on it. It’s not really a movie you can safely recommend to everyone, there are going to be people who don’t really get what this movie is doing and think nothing is happening in it, but it is easier to recommend than some of these kind of movie can be. I think it might also be kind of a perfectly positioned movie for a movie like 2020 in that it’s a movie that focuses on national hardships but not in a way that feels hopeless and is in many ways more about surviving hard times than enduring them. Additionally, while we’re all cooped up in quarantine a movie like this which acts as something of a travelogue of the outside world might be more welcome than ever. Zhao’s next movie is reportedly going to be a Marvel Superhero movie of all things and I’m not sure how that’s going to fit into her current style, but I do hope she comes back to doing stuff like this once she’s done with that because she’d clearly honed what she did on The Rider a lot here and her next film in this style could really be something amazing.
****1/2 out of Five