Editor’s Note: Continuing with his reviews of “movies with a conscience,” the Sun’s film critic assesses whether the acclaim for “Nomadland,” which swept the 2020 Oscars with six nominations and three wins (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Leading Actress) was merited. Available on Netflix DVD and Hulu and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Vudu, Apple TV and Google Play
Early on in “Nomadland,” Fern (the central character played by Frances McDormand) is in her camper van when she suddenly grabs a big white bucket, pulls down her pants, plants her butt on top and proceeds to noisily defecate. This scene defines a lot of the essential character of this movie about RV life: somewhat desperate circumstances, starkly primitive conditions and a simple, distinctive and honest acknowledgement of life’s basics. An instructor at a camp for nomadic RVers counsels that “You have to manage your sh*t!”—something Fern clearly knows how to do.
The scene is also representative of the film’s curious contrasts. On the one hand, there are beautiful twilight shots of some of the American West’s most iconic landscapes; South Dakota’s Badlands are an important location. On the other, there is the stark reality of people living their lives out of vans and pickup campers, moving from one RV park to another national park campground, not because they really want to take a road trip, but because they simply don’t have any other place to go after their permitted stays are up. Maybe these “nomads” live a nearly idyllic life, free of the binds that property imposes. Or maybe they often struggle with simple things like getting enough food. Sure, you could say they have all the freedom in the world. But, clearly, they lack the resources to enjoy it. Is director/adapted screenplay writer/film editor Chloe Zhao celebrating the rich beauty of the American Dream that western landscapes seem to promise? Or is she documenting how, for many, that dream has turned into a slow-moving nightmare.
A. O. Scott (New York Times) wrote: “This tension between stability and uprooting, between the illusory consolations of home and the risky lure of the open road, lies at the heart of Nomadland, Chloe Zhao’s expansive and intimate third feature.” He rated it a “Critics Pick” and, according to Metascore, critics generally rank it third out of all of last year’s 41 Oscar-nominated films (ahead of every other American-made movie!)
Zhao adapted this screenplay from a book of the same name as the film by Jessica Bruder, and she earned an Oscar nomination for that work, as well as for film editing. She garnered an Oscar win as Best Director, and, of course, in case you’ve forgotten, the Academy chose this film as 2020’s Best Picture. (That gives Zhao four Oscar nominations and two wins for just this movie!) Zhao’s significant other, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, was nominated for an Oscar for his work, as well. The critics and Academy voters alike loved this movie and did everything in their power to promote appreciation of Chinese-born, Mount-Holyoke-educated Zhao’s personal filmmaking style. Zhao has a fascination with the American West and a preference for social realism, both found in “Nomadland.”
Zhao is not the only accomplished woman involved in the making of this movie. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for Best Leading Actress for her performance, which Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) labels “one of the most subtle and refined of her career.” And she does just fine here, but the role is not very demanding. Fern seems to serve as a mechanism to draw out the thoughts and feelings of the other nomads, to prompt them to tell their stories.
And that approach is where I start to have trouble with this film. I’m not quite sure Zhao really had a plan of where she wanted to go with this film. Was she directing or just reacting to events as they unfolded around her?
“Nomadland” certainly has a strong element of documentary to it. Supposedly, the scene where Fern craps in the bucket was real. McDormand had a case of indigestion, was in the van with the cameraman and had to relieve herself—so she did! With the camera rolling! Now is that acting or is that simply recording events as they happen?
And what about the fact that McDormand and David Straithairn—who plays something of a romantically interested partner—are the only two actors in the film? All the rest of the nomads traveling around the campgrounds of the West. In fact, the “documentary” nature of this movie is so much a part of its fabric that the nomads never realized until near the end that McDormand was not really one of them. Apparently, they thought the film crew—living out of vans and campers just like McDormand—was there filming Fern for a documentary of nomad life.
I’m not sure how I feel about that—I’m having some issues about the director’s integrity. You may recall that I criticized in a previous review “The Mole Agent,” one of last year’s Academy-nominated feature-length documentaries, because it was filmed under false pretenses. The filmmakers had hired someone to play the role of a nursing home resident whose interactions with other residents were then filmed. In my view, that was misleading the residents and manipulating their feelings in service of the movie’s plot. How is that different from the making of “Nomadland”? Frances McDormand is definitely not a “nomad” in real life, regardless of the fact that she lived that life for a few weeks and acted, however well, the role.
But it’s not just a question of what “category” the movie belongs in: documentary vs. drama. The issue has more to do more with blurring the boundaries between the subjects of the film and the filmmakers and the resulting artificial relationship between them. It also suggests a lack of clarity of purpose on the part of Zhao.
This lack of clarity is most exposed in one of the key shortcomings of this film. While “Nomadland” seems to work fairly well in evoking an empathetic response toward the nomads, in my opinion, it fails to assign responsibility for their plight. The movie focuses, at the beginning, on the company town of Empire, Nevada, which has been decimated by the closure of a United States Gympsum Corporation mine. That is the event that sent the widowed Fern out on the road—too poor to buy a home and too old, really, to find another job. U.S. Gympsum essentially abandoned Fern, and others like her, after the many years in which she and her late husband worked hard to build corporate wealth.
And then there is the periodic employment the nomads obtain at Amazon warehouses. Their work there is hard and, almost always, temporary. While working, they are given a campground permit. But once dismissed, they are, again, on their own. It is interesting that the New York Times recently published a story about the extremely high turnover at Amazon warehouses. The Times reported that the turnover rate is high by design. It reflects a belief by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that workers are inherently lazy and that the best way to achieve high productivity is to make sure workers experience high levels of insecurity. Don’t let them get too comfortable; rapid turnover ensures “fresh blood.” Unfortunately, instead of portraying Amazon as the predatory organization it is Zhao presents it as more of a rescuer of nomads, a place to earn a few bucks when needed.
So, the Academy and most critics loved this movie and praised it with words like “subtle,” “grounded,” “genuine,” “honest” and “empathetic.” Curiously, those are the same words they all used to describe “Minari,” a 2020 drama about a Korean-American family’s move to an Arkansas farm. This is another case where I disagreed with most of the critics. And, as was true with “Minari,” the viewing public isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about “Nomadland” as the critics. The IMDB audience rating places Zhao’s film 17th out of last year’s 41 Oscar-nominated movies, pretty much right in the middle.
Look, I love Frances McDormand and thought she was terrific in “Fargo,” “North Country” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But just because she can take a crap in a bucket, does not, in my opinion, earn her a Best Actress Oscar.
Maybe because I own an RV, have spent a lot of time in both commercial, state and national campgrounds and have encountered a lot of what we called “full-timers,” I don’t think this movie is nearly pointed enough. Maybe because my wife and I are really just one major life crisis from being nomads ourselves, I see how it fails to articulate the real reason these people are where they are. And, if its value as a movie is more as an exposé on a really awful situation, then it doesn’t make it awful enough. This topic does not deserve “subtlety.”
MaryAnn Johanson (the FlickFilosopher) is one of the few critics who did capture the tragedy of social and economic inequality. She called “Nomadland” a “bittersweet dirge for those Americans who have come to realize that the promise of the nation has always been limited and exclusionary, and for far too many, an absolutely empty promise.” Simply put, this movie needs more anger. 3.5 stars