From bucket shitting to freezing tuckus in a gas station parking lot, it’s hard to say that writer/director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland glorifies the experience of living out of a van. Still, for a film beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish, things do feel oddly romanticized at times.
That’s not exactly a criticism, as the usual approach for a subject like this one is artistic poverty pornography. Watching narrative cinema bait Oscars by poaching from the poor is always gross. Zhao, working from the book by Jessica Bruder, permits her characters basic agency and dignity, daring to let them do more than bemoan their Steinbeckian plight. They do do that, just to be clear, but they do more than that too. The result is a weirdly timid, tersely stoic portrait of capitalism’s human scraps.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a recent widow receded and reseeded by the Great Recession. When the factory shut down in her small Nevada town, she lost her house and her job. She now lives in a van, drifting like metal tumbleweed blown by weather currents and employment opportunities. Along the way, she meets fellow nomads, each of whom pays a story of sorrow and defiance as their entrance fee into Fern’s heart.
Swankie (Charlene Swankie) has chosen to die of cancer on the road instead of disappearing into white hospital sheets. Bob Wells, who also plays a fictional version of himself, feels his son’s suicide like he’s still watching it happen in front of him. Dave (David Strathairn) becomes whatever the nomadic equivalent of a steady boyfriend is to Fern, until he asks her to stay with him permanently in his son’s guest house.
Nomadland has no plot or subplot, no character or narrative arc, no easily discernible thesis or moral. It just kind of is. Some have called it a character study, but Fern doesn’t grow, change, or learn anything really. Zhao’s loosely held reins simply let McDormand gallop, pulling the film along with only her authenticity and chaotic charm. This isn’t some sloppy or lazy experience; nobody fell asleep at the van’s wheel. It’s just The Grapes of Wrath without the wrath. So, you know, grapes…
Nomadland is the kind of movie it’s easy to project feelings onto. Its relaxed, nonchalant approach to desperately serious matters of poverty and the irresponsibility of the way communities treat their most vulnerable allows it to feel impassioned without it actually saying much of anything. It’s downright dangerous to imply that “maybe people using their vehicles as bathroom/homes are doing just fine.” It’s equally as upsetting to demean those who have chosen “None of the above” in the shitty multiple-choice question America asks its children to fill out.
Here’s what’s inarguable: McDormand is spectacular. Zhao is the real deal. And Nomadland is a good film that can be elevated to greatness, depending on how much work you’re willing to do on its behalf. To misquote a friend, given the awards love it’s getting, “It’s not the best film of the year, but your mom and dad will think it is.”
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Allison Lanier at Bitch Media says “Nomadland is the movie Hillbilly Elegy wants to be.”
Yasser Medina at Cinemaficionados says “I am convinced that Zhao, as a filmmaker, is one of the renovators of the new Western.”
Wenlei Ma of News.com.au says the film is “an emotional tour de force that moves you but never imposes or manipulates.”