CAST: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Peter Spears
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins
BASICALLY…: After losing everything in the recession, Fern (McDormand) ventures into the American West to live the life of a nomad…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It’s been a wholesome road for Chloé Zhao’s American epic Nomadland. Even during its debut on the limited 2020 festival circuit, it was picking up awards left and right at Venice and Toronto, and winning over audiences everywhere else. By the time award season came along proper, it was truly unstoppable, scooping top prizes from virtually every single awards body out there from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs to, eventually, the Academy Awards, winning three of the latter including Best Picture, Best Director for Zhao (who became the very first woman of colour to win the award) and, in a surprise to some despite a wide-open category, Best Actress for its lead and producer Frances McDormand.
What was it about this film that really stuck in the minds of viewers this last year, among them Academy voting members? One explanation is that the movie really is that good; as I mentioned in my first review back in October (during its run at the BFI London Film Festival), I remarked how Nomadland is a beautifully realised blend of fiction and non-fiction, and that’s very much still the case six months later, but a second viewing brings out some extra feelings that I may have either not noticed before, or was just too busy focusing on all of its other attributes that I simply forgot to mention them. Regardless, they’re worth talking about now, especially after its dominance in a far more muted awards season.
But first, a brief reminder of the plot: set during the early 2010s, we follow a woman named Fern (McDormand), a widow who lost virtually everything after the 2008 economic crisis sacrificed her entire town of Empire, Nevada. She puts most of her remaining belongings into storage and sets out in a makeshift van to live the life of a nomad, living amongst her fellow “houseless” community across the American West and taking up small, menial jobs to earn some quick cash. Fern meets and befriends members of the nomad lifestyle, many of whom are real-life nomads playing fictional versions of themselves, and learns valuable lessons about surviving in the economically strapped landscape as well as how to make the most of her situation.
Perhaps one of the many other reasons that Nomadland has struck such a chord with viewers this year – other than the fact that it’s a fantastic piece of filmmaking that certainly deserves all its accolades – is how it unintentionally matches our own feelings of isolation and desire for human contact. The last year has, of course, been one that’s taken a toll on us all, with several businesses going under and hard-working people either being furloughed or losing their jobs entirely due to the pandemic, which has really forced some people to adopt some new lifestyles in order to survive, similar to how McDormand’s Fern does in this movie. Seeing the fictional character’s plight as she flutters her way through one odd job after another – from polishing rocks at an outdoors geode store, to annual packaging shifts at Amazon (which has garnered some criticism from those expecting a full takedown on the corporation’s controversial workforce policies, which is honestly fruitless because within the context of the movie Fern’s Amazon gig is portrayed as simply a means to an end and nothing more) – surely rings true for viewers who, because of the pandemic, have been forced to take on much lesser work just to get some easy money in, and what director Zhao does so wonderfully here is show how there can be unexpected sparks of joy in such a thing, whether it’s growing closer to some of the people you meet or even finding new and unexpected skills whilst doing something you never thought you could. Of course, any similarities to the current COVID-19 atmosphere are entirely coincidental with this movie, but the fact that it offers striking enough parallels to our current lifestyles is all that audiences need to feel like life is realistically being mirrored on-screen here.
Another sticking point from my earlier Nomadland review was its strong emphasis on how normal everything felt, from the naturalistic performances to the dialled-down drama, but this second viewing left me appreciative of how it also leaves you in an utterly reminiscent mood. Hearing the stories of these people who, like Fern, decided to hit the road as soon as they ran into serious woes, all for various but somewhat similar reasons, leaves you pondering about so much, from how lucky some of us are to have certain luxuries that these people simply cannot afford, to the rather tragic notion that relatives long since gone might not have been better off under these certain economic times. My grandfather, for instance, passed away many years ago at the age of 66, and despite working most of his life at the Bank of England he most likely would have seen his pension drop considerably because the current economy would have dictated his and numerous other middle-aged workers’ lifelines to be expendable. It’s unlikely he would have done what Fern does here and set out in a van to live out his days in peace (especially because, knowing my grandmother’s firm will, he would not have even made it past the front door), but the notion that he might not even have survived the economic crisis of the early 21st century is all too telling about how the fallout unfairly treated people of that age who, similar to him, had worked faithfully and been rewarded underwhelmingly.
The point being, Nomadland inspires viewers such as myself to make such observations about the world we currently live in, and how through a mixture of stunning, emotional filmmaking and a wonderfully understated lead turn by Frances McDormand it also becomes alarmingly easy to put yourself or close others in these people’s shoes and see what, if at all, the general reaction might be. It could also explain why this small, beautiful film has resonated so much with people this last year, because most of us now know what it is to feel like we’ve lost everything we hold dear and perhaps take too much for granted, and seeing such hardship on the screen just makes us all look back on how low the last twelve months have been for most of us. Or, maybe, it’s just a fantastic movie that leaves a strong emotional impact on every single viewing.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Nomadland is a beautiful piece of filmmaking that inspires reminiscent conversations about the economic hardships of an underprivileged generation, and leaves an exceptionally strong emotional impact on each viewing.