A woman in her sixties, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.A woman in her sixties, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.A woman in her sixties, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
Great credit (and much deserved accolades) are due to Chloé Zhao, who not only directs here but also serves as producer and editor, and who also wrote the screenplay. While there are characters, and a loosely scattered progression of events, this is not a conventional film. More than anything I'm reminded of short films of the sort that probe some esoteric concept, with free flow between scarcely related scenes that encourage audiences to draw their own conclusions. It's a style that's a unique challenge for viewer and filmmaker alike, even over a mere 5, 10, 15 minute runtime - and 'Nomadland' is a full-length feature.
It does seem at times like the movie leaps too quickly from one scene to another; it becomes difficult to appreciate what one moment is conveying before we move on to another. Yet that also seems a bit appropriate, and intentional: after all, this is a story about modern-day nomads, who move from place to place and see many things without putting down roots. How perfect to capture that same spirit in the crafting of a film?
Through that construction, and the scenes laid before us, there is indeed much to glean from 'Nomadland.' Opening title cards and occasional dialogue relating economic and personal, financial hardship work toward that end, as well, but only show a small part of the picture. The feature follows an individual on a journey, yet what it's really about is a lost sense of exploration, freedom, and openness. It's about the bonds placed on us by a society and economic structure that demands endless labor and rigid obeisance; the trade-off of opportunity that comes with uncertainty - and the confinement that stability demands.
'Nomadland' explores, through protagonist Fern and the people she meets, the incredible diversity of our country, and the natural wonders it contains, that our societal structure purposefully keeps us from witnessing - a caged animal won't yearn for freedom if it doesn't know what it's missing. It examines the bizarre dichotomy between the found community that pops up in wide, open spaces, and the disconnection that's felt in those places where people live close together.
It offers a perspective on poverty, homelessness, and class structure that gets lost for those of us who have known relative comfort. We so often are told to look down upon people who seem to have less, and live different or more austere lifestyles. Capitalism gives us false promises of elevation while also evilly casting any apparent lack - of material goods, of nebulous success - as a moral failing. But it's all a transparent illusion meant to put up walls where true community, and mutual aid, should exist instead. And 'Nomadland' gives us all this and more in the form of scene by scene snapshots, not unlike the glimpses of the independent lifestyle nomads lead.
For seeming to do so little, 'Nomadland' says so very much.
Zhao wears many hats for this film, and does so deftly, with skills as a writer that matches those of her editing, and direction. There are many beautiful shots in this movie, of landscape and person alike. Zhao expertly captures the far-ranging emotions of her subjects, which apparently includes some real-life nomads portraying fictionalized versions of themselves. That, too, lends authenticity to the picture, and greater credence to the themes and notions it touches upon. Moreover, the somewhat minimalist original score by composer Ludovico Einaudi builds still further upon the emotional heft in 'Nomadland,' to great success.
A long time ago I would have said that 'Nomadland' isn't the sort of movie I'm interested in, what with the bare threads of plot and lack of narrative action or conflict. That's certainly not true any more, but it's still not the easiest film to sit through. Because this is a feature where what a viewer sees is far less important than what they perceive between the proverbial lines, and there is a great deal to pick up on as such.
I can absolutely see why this has garnered so much acclaim, and so many awards. By the nature of how and why it is crafted, 'Nomadland' isn't going to be for everyone. Yet for those who give it a try and are open to learning, it is a fantastic cinematic experience well worth the investment.
- May 22, 2021