Nomadland has seen a lot of traction online, perhaps a result of the impact of the pandemic and its effect on the modern theater. With its release on Hulu, I decided to try out the third feature from Chloé Zhao, to see just what the fuss surrounding this film was about. It turns out that it’s not about anything I agree with.
Let’s begin with the positives: Frances McDormand gives an absolute powerhouse performance here, and she legitimately became someone else for this role. Every time she speaks, I sincerely believe it to be the account of an older woman who had lost her husband, her house, and everything in an economic depression as she searches desperately for a new meaning in life. The cinematography, camera work, and general style mix together this blend of more “traditional” angles you’d expect of a modern drama, but also have shots that feel more sincere since some of the characters you see aren’t characters at all. This presentation is somewhat similar to films that blend together fiction and reality- a main character that is not “true” but rather a fictitious example who interacts with a majority genuine peoples that aren’t actually actors. This method grants us a very bonafide look into the American west and parts of the midwest, from Nevada to South Dakota and back. Production values in this movie are hyperfocused on detail and nuance, and its characterization feels sincere.
Unfortunately, there are many things that keep me from really enjoying this film. Its obsession with glamorizing the American west feels staunchly out of place, especially when it opens with a sequence that details the failings of modern day America. In fact, Fern, our main character, is forced to continue working (which she admits to liking, for some reason) because she cannot apply for benefits, is constantly short on money, and is clearly not an expert at self-maintenance in her new nomadic lifestyle. Later in the film, she’s relating with her sister who considers her “brave” and experiencing what she calls an “American tradition”. Many plot elements of this film relate right back into American exceptionalism in thematic principle, and it’s in very stark contrast to the reality of today. At many points throughout this film we hear about the “American tradition” of being a nomad, and even a couple of references of how settlers once colonized the West. However, instead of condemning the violent and genocidal nature of the expansion of the American west, this film seems to covet it, and relates our white protagonist’s journey to it directly. In order for this film’s themes to work, we have to ignore a history of violence and war to get there, and the weird new age country hippy vibe many of the characters espouse doesn’t help.
Do I think this is the worst movie ever made? No, but it’s a glorification of things that do not exactly reflect a history that feels personally relatable to me in any way. Most of its flaws are in its core themes rather than its execution, as the “blurred lines” of fiction and real life do intersect in an interesting way for this movie. However, I simply cannot overlook the oversimplified handling of American history, its seeming endorsement of the facade of the American dream (just in a little bit of a subversion since it’s not the “traditional” white picket fence American dream), and its inclusion of Amazon and the notion of “work is freedom”. I understand why this film has been embraced by a very much liberal-leaning critical audience, but as a leftist, I cannot get behind the message that this film seems to be sending me: that I can simply uproot and live in a “self-sufficient” way (especially since nothing in this film is legitimately self-sufficient) and that that notion is what the bones of America are about. There are uniquely American struggles that can be condemned, referenced, and brought to light in ways that are respectful and interesting- but this film appears to go the opposite direction. Maybe I am wrong, and I am looking in the wrong direction, but that is what my immediate thoughts come back to. The great execution and handful of good scenes can’t hold up this film’s core for me, and as such, I give it a 6 out of 10.