Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Peter Spears, Tay Strathairn
Review: Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her sixties, who after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
Nomadland is an interesting piece of cinema that also happens to be a nominee for Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars. There are things that I really like about this movie, and things that I really don't like. And my final verdict lies somewhere in between.
Let's start with the good. Frances McDormand. She does a fantastic job playing Fern, and she truly immersed herself in the role. She actually traversed the US in a van and actually performed several of the jobs shown in the film. She lived like a nomad, and interacted with many of her co-stars who were not only real-life nomads, but also had no idea that she was an actress. She also does a great job of encapsulating the character who's philosophy is that she's "houseless not homeless." McDormand excels at making the character come across as authentic. Another area where this movie really shines is that it doesn't objectify its subjects. This film isn't meant to degrade, but to acknowledge and enlighten the viewer about an impoverished subculture that they might not be familiar. In many ways, this film almost comes across as a documentary given that the majority of these folks are real life nomads telling real life stores. In addition, Chloé Zhao does a great job using the vast expansive setting of the southwestern United States to convey a specific tone for this movie. Large, mountainous, purple landscapes. Beautiful sunsets. Dull, subdued desert. The landscapes are beautiful, yet melancholic, and are a wonderful aspect of this film.
But not everything about this film was great. Let's talk about the bad. It seems, at least in my opinion, that there is oftentimes a disconnect between well-made movies that breed awards and entertaining movies that breed commercial success. This film is really depressing, and I guess in most cases, I turn to films to be entertained. I love movies that make me laugh, have intriguing stories, or are packed full of action. The film is not only depressing, but pretty boring as well. While there are many real-life nomads in supporting roles, we don't quite see them face any conflict. They simply tell their stories and open a window into their lives. As a result, there's not much of an arc for anyone in a supporting role. There's not much of an arc for Fern either. The nomadic lifestyle that she leads is a personal choice as she deals with the loss of her husband and her job. However, we don't get to see any of the economic oppression that led her to make that decision in the first place. We watch her hop from town to town, encountering different people and trying her hand at different jobs, but we learn very little about her character. Which is crazy considering this film largely revolves around her singular character.
This film is an artful exposé into the nomadic lifestyle of many folks in the United States. Full marks should be given for McDormand's immersive performance and the cinematography. But when the end result is a film that is depressing, boring, and lacking in character development, it becomes very difficult to find this film enjoyable. This is a film that will win many awards due to its powerful message, shedding light on a demographic of people that don't always get much cinematic shine, and it's aesthetic beauty. But I also imagine that many people would never re-watch this film after the first viewing. Depending on how you evaluate movies, this may or may not be the movie for you.
Fun Fact: With the exception of Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, most of the cast of the film are actual nomads and local people, listing their real first names for their characters. The movie was filmed in seven states over the course of four months, during which McDormand actually performed several of the jobs done by people who do nomadic work, such as harvesting beets and packaging Amazon orders with the CamperForce program.