Nomadland – The modern road movie, critical of the system

Picture of Julian Liurette

Julian Liurette

France McDormand plays the lead character and also produced this movie directed by Chloé Zhao. Although I had never heard of the director, I certainly had heard of McDormand who might win a third Oscar for her performance. McDormand carries this beautifully shot film on her shoulders as she is in almost every shot. She plays Fern, a recently widowed woman, who lost her job at the Empire plant which was located somewhere in one of the Midwest US states. Her character is less strong-headed and more realistic than the one she played in Three Billboards. She is more humble and more touching in this film.

We follow Fern as she sleeps in her van, drives on empty roads, works temporarily at a gigantic Amazon shipping plant and, in one one the central parts of the film, as she joins a group of fellow “Nomads” for several days in the middle of the desert. There she makes several new friends including a man played by David Strathairn who is timidly enamoured by her. We learn about the Nomads’ way of life and their longing for something different than working 5 days a week for the rest of their lives.

Nomadland is told through Fern’s eyes. We see what she sees which include a lot of empty roads, vast desert sceneries with mountains, and lots of rugged natural landscapes. The movie moves at the same pace as the character. We are not sure exactly what Fern is after. She is intriguing and we care for her plight. She isn’t rich. She sleeps in her van on gas station’s parking lots and takes various temporary jobs. She is not glamorous. We watch her pee by the side of the road and take a dump in a bucket inside her van. Everything is filmed documentary style which gives the film a very realistic feel. Even the actors don’t seem to be actors but real people. Appropriately, the film’s music is a simple touching piano melody.

All these aspects make for a slow, simple, but engaging film. It feels like a breath of fresh air compared to loud, supposedly complex, films. It’s the antithesis of a Hollywood big budget superhero movie.

Although I enjoyed Nomadland, I couldn’t help but feel it reminded me of something I could have seen in a student film festival as it has a loose structure, lots of moments with no dialogues and many nature shots which look gorgeous but become repetitive and feel gratuitous as the movie progresses. The film is slow, reflective and for the most part unpredictable. There’s no physical violence. It’s a zen movie. You feel a real connection to another human being which is no small feat these days. The film is also a charge against capitalism. But, awkwardly, it uses major product placements: the most obvious one being Amazon but there are others such as Budweiser. Nomadland is clever but in the end it uses the same system it criticizes.

The film has won awards at major film festival in this past year and is considered a frontrunner for the Oscars. I haven’t see the other contenders for this year but I wouldn’t be surprised if it won. In the year of the pandemic, it’s harder for films to get noticed and were it not for TIFF and the Oscars, I don’t know how I would have heard of it. I watched it on Disney +, not in a movie theatre. If it wins the Oscar, it will be the first film to win that I will have discovered on a small screen. Times have changed.

7.5/10 Seen on April 16, 2021 on Disney + in our living room with Douglas

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