Review: “Nomadland”

If you’ve been keeping up with the Oscar buzz there’s a lot of chatter around a certain film called “Nomadland”. The Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival and considered one of the best movies of 2020 by many outlets (although its official wide release makes in a 2021 film in my book), “Nomadland” is one of those interesting pictures that really isn’t about the story, but rather the simple journey and character study within. Starring Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who has decided to uproot her life in favor of one on the road, and inspired by the vandweller lifestyle, “Nomadland” might not be as engaging for casual viewers as it is for those with a more artistic perspective, but it is proof that even though a movie might be a bit slow and boring, that certainly doesn’t make it bad. In fact it may just make it one of the most well rounded movies

Screenshot Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures and Hulu

“Nomadland” is a beautiful film thanks in no small part to the careful craftsmanship of writer-director-editor-producer Chloé Zhao, who Marvel fans better get familiar with as she is leading the upcoming “Eternals” movie.  The visual style and consistent tone this movie presents is the difference maker that pushes it from being a lifeless mess to the absolute work of art it ended up being. Despite the fact that there’s really no story here, “Nomadland” does so much with so little completely, literally and figuratively embodying all the best things about the lifestyle it chronicles. “Nomadland” doesn’t follow a typical linear story structure and is more of a documentary-esque examination of an alternate way of life through the perspective of one specific person, played by McDormand, who makes a choice to embrace the simplicity of escaping our normal chaotic world. Zhao came into this film with a purpose and an idea and she sees it through right to the end keepings things cool, casual, smooth and free of unwarranted dramatic tension from the very start. That might not sound like a “good” movie on the surface, but it actually ends up creating the recipe for the ultimate character-driven thematic film. And here’s how.

Screenshot Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures and Hulu

When I was explaining to my friends what I just watched I said something interesting. I said “It’s possible to be bored by a movie but also very much enjoy what you’re watching” and that’s the best way I can describe this experience. “Nomadland” is not exciting. It’s not engaging or engrossing in the traditional sense because there’s really no beginning, middle and end or liner story to follow. But it’s important to remember that’s not the point. What it end up being is a “year in the life” kind of experience condensed to an hour and fifty minutes serving purely to focus on one character exploring a unique existence the viewer may initially see as strange or unappealing. The idea of this movie is actually to remain reserved and content in what it is and allow the visuals, the interactions, the simple ideals and its own true-to-life emotional depth speak for themselves. It’s actually pretty genius when you think about it what Zhao has done here. The tone and personality of this movie is exactly what it celebrates about the nomads: a small scale existence free of overwhelming triggers that might feel slow and meandering but also allows you to embrace the simple beauty of it all as a result. By keeping things slow, keeping things simple it’s easier to see all the little things that make the movie, and the lifestyle, so wonderful. “Nomadland” fully embraces its theme from top to bottom in a way I think very few movies manage to pull off with such conviction and careful precision.

Screenshot Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures and Hulu

Frances McDormand, who also produced the film, is also a big part of why it all works. She feels right at home among a cast of characters made up of mostly real-life Nomads, or vandwellers, including YouTube personality Bob Wells and some other genuine real-life characters playing themselves. McDormand keeps things pretty close to the chest the entire movie treating the audience the same way she treats her newfound people by seldom dwelling too deep into the emotional complexities of her reasoning for uprooting herself. Instead she takes in the experience of living a unique existence and clearly finds the hidden beauty of it all providing some of the most believable “in awe” moments you’ll ever see. Like so much about this movie, she succeeds in doing so much with so little serving as just another part of this movie that proves that maybe the nomad’s small-scale lives have some real merit them. The movie as a whole makes an inspiring case for the minimalist approach and is a genuine love letter to its subjects. Even when we do delve into Fern’s story it’s not dwelled on as the major driving element of who she is, nor is it clear it’s the ONLY reason for her new lifestyle choice. It simply serves as a part of her we now know, one that helps us understand her world but also reminds us that there’s so much more we don’t know and that she chose to leave behind, and she likes it that way. That, after all, is the core reason she decided to uproot, to leave it behind, unsaid and in the past.

Screenshot Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures and Hulu

“Nomadland” is not for everyone, but those who do give it the time will grace themselves with one of the most patient and beautiful movies of the modern day. It’s slow and steady, making a successful effort to say so much not through drama and script and style but through its visuals and the very real people it chooses to employ and recognize. “Nomadland” is built to embrace its themes on both a surface level and at its core showing just how much beauty and peace you can find hidden within the little moments by stripping away all the complexities of life around its characters, the same thing they themselves have done by uprooting and taking to the road. Earlier I called this film “boring”, and maybe that was the wrong wording to use. It’s not boring, it’s just not exciting in the traditional sense. It’s not made to entertain; it’s made to enlighten and that’s something that it does quite well. I personally think it deserves to contend for the Oscars, and I can see why it earned enough respect to earn the coveted Golden Lion. I can agree it was one of the best films to premiere in 2020 and would have probably been close to the top of my list if it actually released last year, but it will most certainly end up being one of my favorite movies at the end of 2021.


(out of four)

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