‘Nomadland’ Review (New York Film Festival Review)

There are times when you realize you’re watching a director who’s about to change the game. The early films of Spike Lee were an example of this. So were the films of Quentin Tarantino, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnés Varda, Bong Joon Ho, and beyond. I firmly believe that Chloé Zhao is the next great auteur. Her second feature, The Rider, was an incredible take on the Western genre, and demonstrated a director who could not just capture pathos onscreen, but conjure it out of thin air. Nomadland is a continuation of her proof of concept, managing to craft a modern-day Grapes of Wrath that somehow, with few missteps, captures the entire essence of the American ideal and captures it on film with an unheralded vérité spirit of neorealism and the vast epic iconography of the Fordian school of filmmaking.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, thousands of Boomers lost not only their jobs, but their entire life savings – their social security, their pensions, their 401k, everything. One such town was the sheetrock mining center of Empire, Nevada, which was hit so hard their zip code was deactivated in 2011. Among those who lost their job in Empire’s collapse is Fern (Frances McDormand), a solitary widower looking to keep afloat by any means necessary. She works a series of seasonal jobs that help her get by just enough to afford a van to live in – a vehicle she lovingly names Vanguard. During the Christmas rush at the Amazon factory she’s found employment with, Fern meets Linda May (playing herself), a feisty woman in a similar situation, who tells Fern about the Nomad movement – a gathering of older folks who traveled from town to town finding small-time seasonal work, living in their vans and forming makeshift communities to care for one another. Fern joins Linda on one of her pilgrimages back to the tribe, where she meets the founder Bob Wells (also playing himself), easygoing Swankie (playing herself), and David (David Strathairn), a soft-spoken widower who develops a crush on Fern. And so begins a year in Fern’s life, as she learns more about this strange subculture, rediscovers the beauty of America, and finds herself in the process.

Like The Grapes of Wrath before, Nomadland is about finding the flaws inherent in the current hierarchy of American society. Nomadland elicits sympathy by drawing attention to a lost generation, who was struck harder by anyone during the 2008 economic collapse (outside of millennials, it seems). After all, it’s easy to talk about the effects in the abstract, like The Big Short, but Nomadland gets into the gritty reality, where towns are so bankrupted that they are completely disbanded. Hell, even the people who witness this loss of autonomy second-hand don’t fully understand it – there’s a great sequence where Fern sits restlessly at a family dinner as her middle-class brother-in-law prattles on about how the economy is “clearly booming,” despite the realities witnessed by the Nomads. Zhao takes us on an odyssey of odd jobs and money-making ventures, including park attendant, fast food cook, rock & gem sellers, and ultimately Amazon warehouse worker (Zhao inexplicably managed to gain access to an actual Amazon fulfillment center for filming, and while the film doesn’t necessarily dive into the controversial aspects of the position, it also doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities) – all of which earns the workers just enough for gas and a few food and toiletry items. Each time we see Fern working one of these jobs, she is isolated, occasionally mistreated, and framed in the bleakest of color schemes. One of the film’s most gorgeous shots finds Fern sitting alone on a giant mountain of potatoes she’s been picking. At the end of the day, in this broken system, is she worth more than those potatoes? Does the company view her as human? Do the people she’s picking for? Is her life ultimately no more than a speck on the mountain of spuds? These are the weighty questions and sociological ideas Nomadland grapples with.

And yet, while the film captures the harsh realities of a system in decline, and those who fall through the cracks in the process, this is not a film about hardscrabble waywards struggling to survive. Instead, Zhao paints this film as a journey into a strange subculture, one who finds hope, religion, and beauty outside of the traditional American system. Indeed, at times it seems more akin to Easy Rider – a film about traveling through a modern America and trying to discover a vast undercurrent – than its surface-level Grapes of Wrath similarities. Yes, the Nomads are only able to afford the RV lifestyle due to its relative cheapness when compared to mortgages and predatory banks. But ultimately, their newfound lifestyles also provide a sense of freedom they were never able to find within the system. While not exactly socialism – or even the current trend of democratic socialism – the Nomads find a religious-esque beauty in escaping the slavery of the dollar. It’s a philosophy best summed up in the final act; when the Nomad lifestyle is mocked by the aforementioned brother-in-law, Fern deftly replies, “It’s strange to me that you convince people to spend all their money to go into debt to live in a house they can’t afford.” Nomadland is about escaping a broken system and seeing the world for what it is – one big commercial. Most Americans live in a world of want, while this film is a reminder of what we need; the luxury of yacht-sized RVs vs the necessity of one sturdy van. It has nothing to do with poverty, or woe-is-meism, or sadness porn. Indeed, despite societal norms demanding shame and humiliation when in the throes of poverty, the Nomads embrace their newfound freedom – when a former neighbor belays Fern with self-righteous pity, she deftly replies “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless. Nomadland – and the Nomad lifestyle along with it – is a treatise on the freedom we all so desperately crave.

Along with that sense of freedom previously mentioned, Nomadland is a love letter to the Soul of America – or the real America outside of the “idea” America. The film draws from the traditions of the pioneers and the Okies, which makes sense why Zhao has cinematographer Joshua James Richards shoot it like a John Ford epic. Ford, the man behind Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How The West Was Won, made a name for himself creating grand Westerns that reflected on our ancestors’ journey to sustain themselves in the grand beauty of nature. Zhao brings that spirit to life with a modern, revisionist passion. As Fern begins to find herself in the Nomad community, so too does she connect with nature, perhaps for the first time in her life. This is a film that is set in the 2010s and features lush, romantic shots of running streams, massive rocky mountains, buffalo running through fields, and the ultimate joy of lying naked in a river, absorbing the beauty that surrounds you. While it’s not the “American Dream” so many authors have written about time and time again, it is a much purer vision of America than we’ve seen in a long time – a vision of pure lands, respectful communities, and a oneness with nature usually reserved for Buddhists and Native Americans. This is a film about loving the little things in life, whether it’s the beauty of a tree or a grandparents’ plate collection. Being a Nomad is about finding contentedness in life and nature – a sentiment best exemplified by Swankie, who delivers a beautiful, peaceful monologue confessing to terminal cancer and her preparedness for the coming end.

Of course, the main reason I think I enjoyed Nomadland as much as I did is that, in a time of serious and troubling division, the film instead focuses on the group’s insistence upon communal support and living their lives as good, helpful, loving people. When we first meet Fern, she is an entirely isolated individual. She is someone, we learn, who never fit in with society, who is consistently filmed in solitary conditions (alone in her van, alone at the laundromat, alone in nature, etc.), and whose existence, in a lesser film, could ultimately be considered entirely bleak. That is, of course, until she meets the community. Zhao makes it clear from the jump that the answer to life’s problems and mysteries is the kindness of others and a shared sense of love – when Fern first emerges from the Amazon warehouse into the desert commune where the Nomads have set up a seasonal camp, the entire production shifts in nature, morphing from dull greys and muted colors to a stunning panorama of warmth and color. The kindly vagabonds Fern interacts with have a real lived-in honesty to their portrayals – presumably helped by the fact most individuals play themselves. It’s a world that can shift from a hard, but fair life lesson (making sure you have a spare tire, how to disguise your car to avoid fines, how to signal that you don’t want to be disturbed, etc.) into a world of campfires and dancing the next. But most importantly, it’s a community that is willing to share tragic stories not as a source of pain, but as a form of triumphant catharsis, representing how far they’ve come thanks to their fellow Nomads’ support. Their pain gives them insight into what’s important in life – don’t waste any time, look out for each other, and, perhaps most important of all, that “A lot of people our age suffer loss and grief. Many don’t get over it. And that’s ok. Just remember that there is no final goodbye.” Hell, I’d go as far as to say 99% of the characters in this film could earn the title of “goodhearted” – and it’s entirely possible the other 1% is well-meaning. 

In terms of the filmmaking, it is abundantly clear that Zhao is not a force to be trifled with. She is a confident, unparalleled director that knows both how to elicit emotion onscreen and create f*cking beautiful art at the same time. She is a quiet, contemplative auteur, and yet she never overplays her quaintness like, say, late-stage Terrence Malick. I’ve already written about what she and Richards achieve with their cinematography, but it really speaks to their talents that despite the exquisite beauty, the shots still maintain an honest naturalism. One particularly stunning sequence finds Fern emerging alone out of the desert and into her community, firmly cementing her within the group for the first time. Zhao plays with everything – from color to sound to camera work and beyond to establish mindset, spirituality, and more from scene to scene, depending on where Fern is mentally and emotionally. And it’s all carried along by a gentle, beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi. In fact, my only issue with the film is one that was always going to be a challenge to overcome: the circular nature of the narrative. You see, due to the book’s loose, nonfiction structure, a straightforward narrative was always going to be a hurdle that writer/director/editor Zhao was going to have to deal with. And while she mostly sticks the landing, there is one drastic sticking point that hinders the production. Due to the aforementioned lack of narrative, the film often finds itself in circular – and eventually, repetitive – patterns for the bulk of its runtime: Fern works alone, she joins the group, she has a private adventure; lather, rinse, repeat. Now, I don’t necessarily mind the repetition of the pattern – any time we get to see her bond with the group is a joy, thanks to the charismatic personalities of her neighbors. But after the sixth miserable dead-end job filmed in muted shades, there’s a growing sense of fatigue that inevitably takes over. And while we inevitably find joy in the return to the camp and to nature afterwards, it also means exasperation when the cycle repeats itself in 20 minutes. I don’t want to come down too hard on these missteps. After all, I did mostly love the film otherwise. But it’s such a major setback, I’d be remiss to ignore it or act otherwise.

There are exactly two notable actors performing in Nomadland, and both performers have the unenviable job of playing vessels; that is to say, they are quiet, passive observers who still must tackle weighty emotional arcs. McDormand has an advantage here, thanks to the sheer expressiveness of her face. Despite an introverted, withdrawn exterior, she is able to convey caring, warmth, love, and decades of backstory with just the sheer passion behind her eyes. McDormand plays Fern as two contradictory mindsets that inexplicably mesh perfectly: the people-averse introvert and the empathetic listener. And when she’s not caught between these two emotions, she portrays adorably nervous when hit on by the gentle Strathairn. Strathairn is a calming, loving presence that matches Fern’s energy perfectly throughout, although I’d be remiss to say his character is only here to give audiences something to swoon over – after all, there’s an entire sequence where the bearded lover plays with a baby. But ultimately the draw here is not the big-name actors “slumming it” with this blue-collar community; nay, the draw here is the community itself. You can tell these side characters are real people as Zhao captures them feeling lived in without a shred of fakeness of façade. Both Swankie and Bob Wells (who lives up to the hype of “looking like Santa”) will absolutely floor you with powerful monologues about family, love, and death that no actor could ever hope to match – and that’s the point, because these people are speaking from the heart, not feigning emotion. But for my money, no one manages to capture the balance of real-life humor, heartbreaking, and charisma like Linda May. From the jump, May is a force to be reckoned with, capturing our attention long before she ingratiates herself with McDormand’s Fern. She’s whip-smart, consistently lovable, and capable of crushing us with a poignant monologue about her life’s story. She is what inspires this movie to greatness, and embodies why it works: because it steps back and lets these people tell their true stories about true experiences, no muss or fluff needed.

Nomadland is a strange type of film, thanks to it messaging and narrative. It’s religious, but it’s not. It’s political, but it’s not. It is a slice-of-life drama that reminds us of the America we were, the America we are, and the America we can be; where we survive by the strength of community and family, and come together to tackle the harsh realities of nature as one. The film portrays the Nomad lifestyle as circular – it constantly repeats and changes, ebbs and flows. The only constant, in the community and in life, is our ability to connect with our fellow humans and to be there for each other. It’s as poignant a film as any to come out this year, and one that will stick with you going forward.

B+

Nomadland will have a one-week virtual run on the Lincoln Center website starting December 4th. It will have a theatrical release starting February 19th

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