NOMADLAND is a simple, quiet character and/or lifestyle study. It’s shot all on location, mostly outdoors, and feels largely improvised. It centers on the great Frances McDormand (DARKMAN) as a woman named Fern, who is often alone. But when she’s not, she’s often working exclusively with non-professional actors just being themselves, using their own names. (Two of her co-stars are credited as “Linda May” and “Swankie,” which is also what she calls their characters.)

Adapted from the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by the journalist Jessica Bruder, these are characters and/or real people – mostly of what used to be called “retirement age” – who have either chosen or been forced into a life living in vans or RVs, crossing the country to take on different seasonal jobs. Fern’s husband died, and then the mining town where they lived did too, and for years she’s been “doing the van thing,” as a friend she runs into at a store describes it. Everyone she knows from before seems concerned for her, and offers to let her stay with them. And we will learn over the course of the movie that it’s not just pride that makes her turn down their offers.

We first see her report to a winter job at an Amazon fulfillment center. The people are nice. It doesn’t seem fun. She shows off her van to co-worker Linda May, who tells her about an annual event in the Arizona desert called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Fern resists, but ends up attending this real life event run by vandwelling guru Bob Wells, who plays himself. (The movie takes place in the early oughts so it’s a small get-together – 10,000 people showed up to the one in 2019.)

It’s basically a convention for people interested in a nomadic lifestyle, sharing tips about vehicle maintenance, where to park without getting into trouble, etc. So we get to learn some things over Fern’s shoulder. A woman gives a presentation about choosing a bucket to use as your toilet on the road. Everyone chuckles when she shows the tall one you can use if your knees are bad.

I think this is something that’s interesting about the movie: it’s not about feeling sorry for anyone. It’s very respectful of the idea that many of these people really enjoy the freedom of moving around and not being tied down to a piece of property. Fern really doesn’t seem to know how to be happy living in a house, and it must be nice to see so many sunrises, or to be able to drive right up to a beach and watch the waves crash during a storm, or even to work at a national park for a while. There’s also an appeal to the strong human connections they’re making, meeting others they consider of their tribe, coincidentally running into the same people in different parts of the country. I like the scene where she shares a beer with some hippie kid (who I was convinced had to be related to Sean Penn) because they both remembered her giving him a cigarette in some other city months ago. It’s an overlap of these two vagabond lifestyles, one for young people resisting pressure to go to college/get a job/settle down/grow up, one for old people who can’t or won’t retire.

But I feel like it gives the lifestyle dignity without glamorizing it. The thing we see right before the title comes on screen is poor Fern on the side of the road, squatting next to a barb wire fence to pee. In retrospect that might’ve seemed like a great luxury compared to the bucket. We only see her use it once, and never learn where she empties it, but seeing her get a knock on the window while she’s in there having stomach issues sure convinced me that the nomad life is not for me.

So it’s never lost that however much some people may want to live this way, or may find meaning in it, it is something many or most of them have resorted to as a consequence of economic injustice. They’ve been compared to the trainhoppers during the Great Depression, a similarly complicated mixture of freedom and oppression. I just wish they really had a choice of how to live. My grandpa was in the army and then worked at the post office, had three kids, and after retirement was able to visit most of the lower 48 in an RV without losing his house. That used to be a thing our economy allowed.

One way I think the movie plays down the negative side, but that I appreciate, is that there aren’t really bad guys in it. The biggest confrontation is one little incident where someone knocks on her window and tells her she can’t sleep there. There are characters who are clueless, like her dipshit brother-in-law and his friends who stupidly talk real estate investment in front of her, but honestly she’s ruder to them than they are to her. In the real world I bet they deal with more assholes and people intending them harm than we see here, but it makes for a more interesting movie to set all that aside.

The director is Chloé Zhao, who has been nominated for best director for this. I’ve been meaning to see her previous movie THE RIDER, which many raved about, and she did one before that called SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME. I’m told they’re both great and similarly use non-professional actors. While filming NOMADLAND she was also in production for Marvel’s ETERNALS. Somehow it’s both totally predictable and completely improbable that this particular director would end up doing a giant MCU space people movie. I love when an indie/arthouse/smarty-pants director does mainstream entertainment and brings something unusual to it, but these days it’s also common to just have to compromise and abandon what was special about your movies in the first place. I’ve read that she insisted on more location shooting than normal Marvel, but is that enough? Did they allow her to round out the cast with a bunch of real Eternals playing themselves? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Oh, also she’s supposed to be doing a Bass Reeves biopic and a “futuristic western DRACULA,” so now that I think about it I’m all for her straying from her indie roots.

As interesting and memorable as NOMADLAND is, I do have an issue with it. In cursory research I didn’t see anyone else with this complaint, so it’s probly just my weird thing, but I feel like I should mention that I found the specific way it combines reality and fiction very distracting at times. I love the authenticity non-professional actors bring to movies, and they’re the most interesting part of this one. But at the beginning we’re being introduced to this fictional character of Fern and seeing how rough her life is and sympathizing with her. And we understand that this is a fictional movie portrayal of something that’s a reality for many people. But right away she’s talking to people who we instantly recognize are real people really living this way.

For much of the movie it seems like McDormand is the only actor. It’s like one of those prank movies, like BORAT, except the prank is they tell her a true story about their husband dying and losing their house and then she tells them a fictional one and together they pretend like they’re in this together. It took me a while to be comfortable with one of my favorite actors, who is an Academy Award winner and married to one of my favorite directors, also an Academy Award winner, nodding along to these stories like she’s been there. I honestly can’t tell if she’s giving a performance as Fern, or being the good human I assume she is and listening and offering sympathy. So it took me out of the movie.

I don’t remember much about Steven Soderbergh’s BUBBLE, but I remember the lead was a non-professional actor who worked as a manager at a KFC, and she played a factory worker. I thought it really worked, but don’t you think it would be distracting if, like, Julia Roberts played one of her co-workers? It’s kind of like that – there are all these real people being real, with one actor at the center. And then you spot David Strathairn so okay, this is going to be a major character.

When it got more into those two together, their fictional lives and families and backstories, I was able to let go of that baggage and enjoy it as a movie rather than an uncomfortable simulation. And some of the best stuff is just Fern hanging out with Linda May or talking to Swankie, where it really feels like a genuine friendship bloomed between Academy Award winner Frances McDormand and nomadic workers Linda May and Swankie. But then there’s a heartbreaking scene toward the end where Bob tears up talking about how he deals with the loss of his son to suicide. It’s a moving, human moment, a human being (who knows what he’s doing) opening up in front of the camera. It’s beautiful, but in the context of the movie the point of the scene is not this man’s real experience, but the lesson it teaches to a fictional character.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I just had to work to go along with what the movie asked me to accept. I know it was McDormand who bought the rights to the book, wanted to tell this story, and recruited Zhao to direct, in her particular way. And I’m sure it’s a better outcome than if it was all actors playing nomads. But for a while I definitely wished it could just drop the facade and be a documentary about these people. At times it almost is, but they’re talking to “Fern” instead of the camera.

So I was excited when I read that there’s at least a documentary short based on the same book. It’s called CamperForce and it’s on the DVD for the feature THE HOTTEST AUGUST by the same director, Brett Story. CamperForce is good, and is very different from NOMADLAND. It’s about a couple in their ‘70s who lost their life savings in the 2008 stock market crash so instead of retiring they live in an RV (a really nice one compared to the ones in NOMADLAND) and get $11 an hour to move things around in an Amazon warehouse. As NOMADLAND implies, Amazon has an actual program specifically for temporary workers living in RVs. I was most unsettled by the young Amazon employees – themselves cogs in the machine just doing a gig – leading seminars about the lifestyle of what they call “workampers.” (Isn’t that fun?) Everybody in the room puts a good spin on it, flipping through the brochure considering if this is the best option for them, trying to make it work rather than dwelling on the fact that this very program is a nightmarish consequence of modern capitalism.

Anyway, I will check out those other two Zhao movies, and look forward to futuristic Dracula, and keep my fingers crossed that all of us can stay off the bucket if we so choose.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 22nd, 2021 at 11:21 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Nomadland”

  1. Not gonna lie, in recent years I thought more than once about doing the nomadic lifestyle, but in the end I love the comfort of my life too much, although being forced to stay at one spot brings way too many problems. And I also think something like that is impossible in a country like mine. You need (sorry) a country with really shitty employment laws and social security to drive around and do some paid-in-cash dayjobs. Otherwise your only option is just being homeless and beg for money.

  2. I think your a little justified in your concern Vern, and if this was made in a way that was less considerate to the non-actors the final product would have suffered. That goes the other way too, if this was made to make that life more romantic that would inherently carry more issues along. I liked it a lot, and don’t feel it was exploitative in the least so that was nary a concern to me.

    Kind of pulling for this to win big at the Oscars, but I won’t be disappointed if either MANK or JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (the only other two I’ve seen of this year’s bunch) win the big prize.

  3. I watched THE RIDER awhile ago before I knew much about Zhao. This film was not on my radar at that time and frankly, I had no idea she hired a real cowboy to play himself. I thought wow this guy is playing the role really subdued but I like it; it feels authentic! And lo and behold, it was. Of course, there is the saying that the lie is in the cut. Nothing was truly authentic. But it was still moving. Whether it is based on the truth or not the lie if told well can still move you. Zhao did not apply this same formula quite exactly here. She would have had to cast one of the unknowns in the role and it probably would have been more successful artistically speaking. But we wouldn’t be talking about it, the way we didn’t talk about THE RIDER when that came out either. So she knew what the cost was of hiring a bigger actor for the main role. I think Vern’s uneasiness with it is the cost of doing that. I don’t think it lessens the impact of what she is doing – big picture wise. Thanks for the write up!

  4. I am getting irrationally angry thinking about Vern spending four hours on ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE while THE RIDER is sitting there unwatched.

  5. 5 if you include fast forwarding through the theatrical cut again.

  6. You have a point Vern. It vaguely disturbs me too, real people especially from a lower socio economic strata, pulled into the spotlight briefly to interact with millionaire actors playing a part, then retreating back to their sad sack lives after shooting wraps.

    It bothered me that in JOE, a Nic Cage movie I really enjoyed, a real life homeless man played a deadbeat dad and a homeless man. A couple of months after the movie finished shooting, he was found dead on the streets. Am not blaming anyone, just saying it really bothered me.

  7. I thought Nomadland nearly perfectly balanced sympathy and empathy here. It never comes across as pitying, even though it does occasionally highlight the fact that economic circumstances have pushed so many of these people out to the brink. At the same time, the idea of van living has a certain appeal, which they occasionally undercut by showing some of the hardships these people have to deal with.

    One critique I’ve read about the film is its portrayal of Amazon. I guess in the book it goes into details about the terrible working conditions, but here it’s shown as a lifeline where you can make “good money.” Were they afraid that Prime wasn’t going to carrying the film if they were critical? Or maybe they were afraid of Amazon’s lawyers? I liked the movie enough, I’ll probably pick up the book.

    I suspected that most of the actors were non-professionals, but in my ignorance, I had no clue that Bob’s admission about his son’s suicide was a real event. I can definitely see how that’s ethically shaky. Normally when a film features non-professional actors, they’re there to provide authenticity, but they’re still actors. They’re not playing themselves.

    And I wonder how many of these people end up having a career in acting? The only person I can think of Barkhad Abdi from Captain Philips. I’ll admit, I always get excited when he shows up in a movie. I wish Hollywood would give him larger parts.

  8. I just assumed it was a real story based on how authentic the conversation seemed, but I have now verified it – he talked to Vulture and maybe others about it. He is of course very aware of what he was doing, he apparently hadn’t told many people about it but told Zhao a few days before filming the scene, and she asked him if he would be willing to share it in the movie. I can see how it could be cathartic to do something like that, I’m not trying to say it’s exploitative or unethical to have it in the movie. I just found it impossible not to think about the artifice of using this actual grief to say something about the fictional character in the scene.

  9. That’s good to know that there was a conversation beforehand, and it seems like he’s someone who is comfortable being in front of the camera, since he has his own YouTube camera.

  10. This is a great movie.
    I would highly recommend the excellent Leave No Trace, a more traditional but kind of similar film which is also incredibly empathetic and resists making anyone into a bad guy.

  11. Gonna say my ETERNALS thoughts here (instead of the SPIDER-MAN board since I still haven’t seen it yet and I just got spoiled by looking there) – and especially because it sounds like from Vern’s comments there he might not review it.

    In a nutshell: it may not be the best Marvel movie, but it’s the Marvel movie for people who don’t like Marvel movies. Or at least, it’s clearly the Marvel movie for people who like watching movies on edibles. It combines so many of my favorite film obsessions I’m starting to wonder if Chloe Zhao is me. It’s Tree of Life plus The New World plus The Snydercut plus The OG Planet of the Apes series – how can I not love this movie?? All Zhao needed to do is throw in some Brian De Palma in there and I might have to leave the wife and propose to her. I love the humor, the action, the left-field casting choices that actually pay off. The sympathy the movie has for all its characters, even the villains (who might not even be villains). The way the movie is literally about EVERYTHING – nature vs. nurture, fate vs. free will, breaking cycles of violence, talking to God, searching for meaning in life, finding hope in a terrible world, unrequited love, losing touch with friends, early-onset dementia. Good Lord is there anything this movie ISN’T about?? It’s crazy and ambitious and I loved every minute of it. I saw it last night and haven’t been able to shut the fuck up about it since.

    Oh, also NOMADLAND is pretty good – I mean, I’m glad it won awards and I liked it and was never bored, but I’ll say it didn’t really fulfill any of my needs as a movie-watcher (nor does it even try to, to be honest). I guess I’m old-school and like to go to movies to laugh, cry, or be thrilled, and NOMADLAND doesn’t really have any interest in giving you those experiences. ETERNALS gives you all of that several times over and a bag of chips – it might be my favorite movie of 2021.

  12. “Good Lord is there anything this movie ISN’T about??”

    Exactly. I like the heart and ambition, and there’s a certain degree of artistic courage in doing all of this with no reliance on legacy MCU characters and stars and taking an ensemble approach that basically hard passes on the idea of there being a single focal lead.

    I took more of a mental illness (schizophrenia) interpretation of the one character, but I particularly liked the way they handled that. The film also gives representation to mental illness and in what I thought was a really heartfelt and compassionate way. They forgive her and take care of her and treat her as someone who still has value, which she does.

  13. It’s funny, though, that in attempting to be about everything, it pretty much negates the entirety of human experience. According to the film, humans were the architects of neither our greatest achievements nor our darkest sins. We are pretty much just along for the ride. So what, exactly, is so fucking special about us that the Eternals are willing to go against their loved ones and indeed their entire purpose in life to save us? Ajak says she has destroyed millions of worlds in her day, and yet it is only humanity that has inspired her to stop the cycle of destruction. Which is a depressing thought. If humanity—a pestilence on this planet on our best days, and we don’t have many of those—is the very finest that sentient life has to offer, then maybe all those cosmic supervillains were right and it needs to be stamped out by any means necessary. Granted, I’ve only spent a scant 44 years around humans but I can’t imagine a few thousand more would improve my opinion of them much. Maybe Thanos’ problem was that he just didn’t think big enough.

  14. I didn’t entirely follow the part of the plot where Tyreen-Henry would try to introduce technologies. It seemed like maybe he could occasionally inject a technological push but that he was sort of coming alongside human evolution to give it a nudge vs. the Eternals being the architects of humanity. Which is a long way of saying that I think the film implied a role for human will and creativity, with the Eternals more as folks who occasionally nudged things along or put a thumb on the scale.

    As far as the rest of your post, it seems like another occasion to project your dim view of humanity onto the film, asking the question, why do only some Eternals sometimes see humans in as dim a light as I do? I think the answer is that one’s summary assessment of humanity is one of those half-full / half-empty deals: with your view being half-empty and others’ being half-full. I also like that the film represents this tension and diversity of viewpoints well (as you mention elsewhere in the SPIDER-MAN thread). The film gives representation to differing views about the value of the human project.

  15. Even without my bias, though, the film gives numerous, extremely convincing examples of humanity’s shittiness and almost no examples of its positive attributes. There’s like three actual humans in the entire film, and they’re fine and all, but hardly enough to balance out the thousands of years of slaughter we’ve been shown. It’s all “They don’t deserve to be saved” until one of them has a kid and suddenly it’s all “Well, I guess they’re not ALL terrible…” The idea seems to be that as long as you keep your head in the sand and only focus on the humans you have a personal motivation not to fuck over for your own ends, then yeah, sure, we’re a great species. Really top shelf. I remain skeptical.

    But maybe I’m thinking too short term. Sure, saving the Earth might seem like a win for sentient life now, but killing that celestial means billions of new lives won’t come to be, which can only be a good thing in the long run if this is the kind of bullshit we gotta go through to keep this dog-and-pony show running.

  16. Relatedly, I thought an interesting theme was that, as some of the Eternals started to actually engage in vulnerable personal relationships with humans, they developed a greater fondness for them and investment in them. This reminds me of that old quote attributed to Stalin about a single death being a tragedy and a million deaths being a statistics: It’s easy to be indifferent to — or scornful of — humanity in the abstract, but when you experience powerful, concrete human connection, a lot of that abstraction goes out the window (conversely, it’s easy to be preachy and ethical in the abstract, but when you are victimized or tempted, a lot of your high-minded ethics might go out the window). One idea here is that our embodied engagement and skin-in-the-game investment in relationships and community-building is an occasion for our abstractions to be tested, challenged, and refined. I like the way this film does family, relationship, and team without the usual big egos bullshit of the Avengers.

  17. Thank you guys so much for moving away from the SPIDER-MAN thread! I’m kinda with Majestyk that the “humanity is worth saving!” plot is sticky and messy, but I think deliberately so. Take The Fifth Element or The Abyss Director’s Cut, where it’s basically the same plot except the climax is “Well, even though you guys have lots of wars and genocide, I see y’all can love each other so my verdict is…Worth Saving!” Eternals could go in that direction (and sorta does), but by Ajak specifically stating humanity is worth saving because a human (Tony Stark) found a way to reverse the SNAP…it completely muddies the waters. Instead of “love”, it says our humanity should live because a fictional guy had a fictional response to a fictional event. Meanwhile in real life, on this actual planet, this movie that packs in as much diversity as it does “Big Ideas”, that has overt messages of Peace and Love and Tolerance unlike any Marvel movie before, gets banned from like 12 countries because it has a gay kiss in it! I’m not saying Disney and Zhao are playing 5D Chess on us and knew that would happen, but I kinda have to think they knew that would happen, right? And that irony wouldn’t be lost on people today who read news and interviews and know the package surrounding the movie is part of the movie?

    I mean, let’s agree any other movie would end with The Eternals finding out that their God was evil and it was all a lie and killing humans would not really create lives elsewhere. There were no WMD’s on Earth, it was all for oil or gold or some shit. But this movie purposely never refutes that! We’re left really wondering whether our heroes did the right thing or the selfish thing. Tyree-Henry’s husband appears to be in his 40’s, so we’ll assume the movie is implying he’s known him for only 20ish years (out of 7000 years on Earth). Yet he purposely damns TRILLIONS of other lives to nonexistence because of the way he feels about him! The Eternals cause an almost Thanos-like extinction event at the end of this one and I think the movie really wants you to be aware of that, which is incredible.

  18. Majestyk, I’m unclear which parts of your comments are you own actual views of whether humanity should keep going and which are complaints about the film. You might be right that the film does not justify the saving of humanity on its own terms — that reaches a conclusion about humanity being worth saving without sufficiently developing that thesis. Maybe. I might need to watch it again.

    I think there’s an inherent visual and narrative asymmetry around love and creation vs. violent destruction. When you’re talking about war or acts of mass destruction, that there are no direct analogues, since you can’t build a civilization with a bomb, and since it’s faster to burn a city to the ground than it is to construct a city from nothing. I suppose they could’ve shown someone creating a medical breakthrough or rescuing miners from a cave or maybe an elapsed-time picture of the Eiffel tower being built or something? I think the film’s narrative strategy is to rely on smaller, subtler indicators of love and creation, like with the family and dating scenes and the scene in the kids classroom and the guy fixing his kid’s bike. To me, that is another theme in the film, which is that destruction is always in some sense easier than construction, whereas, construction is a subtler, time-elapsed, long-game labor of love.

  19. I’m not really complaining, per se. This ambivalence about whether or not the characters did the right thing is the most interesting thing about the movie.

  20. And speaking of moral quandaries, I think The Deviants storyline and the way it plays out is fascinating. Like my beloved Planet of the Apes, I love that this movie introduces 3 Factions – Deviants, Eternals, and Celestials, forever interlocked in a Bong Joon-Ho style social strata where there’s totally a hierarchal order to the way things should be (totally foreshadowed with the “Apex Predator” lesson in the classroom, which is a plot device that normally makes my eyes roll but made me smile here for some reason). And at the end the Eternals “do the right thing” and stick it to the Celestials to save Earth, but they also eradicate an entire species with no remorse or second thought.

    The visual language they use when Thena kills the final Deviant tells us it’s a “fuck yeah!” moment (I mean, it’s Angelina Jolie kicking ass like she always does and it feels like something out of an Underworld movie), but how can you not feel it’s a tragedy? I don’t know if The Deviants are supposed to represent Black or marginalized people or what, but there’s something disturbing and powerful about the fact that they literally have no voice – that only by committing acts of violence and Highlander-ing the Eternals can they gain a voice and express how they feel and let the Eternals (and the audience) feel their pain – “We are not evil, we have the right to exist” the leader argues. And the Eternals, the supposed good guys of the movie, don’t turn to their side, Avatar-style. They react by saying “They can speak now, they’re more dangerous than ever”. (The main character, the supposed “empathetic” Eternal is the one who says this!) And then they kill em all. Again, the movie ends with The Eternals kinda patting themselves on the back for breaking one cycle of violence with the Celestials and never addressing that they also continue (and I guess complete) another cycle of violence with the Deviants. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth and I 100% think that’s on purpose.

  21. “And I wonder how many of these people end up having a career in acting? The only person I can think of Barkhad Abdi from Captain Philips.”

    i think R. Lee Ermey is probably the best example. Dennis Farina is a good one, too.

  22. Reading some of the top recent comments, for a second I seriously thought you all had lost it completely, talking about Thanos in a NOMADLAND discussion!

  23. Frances McDormand’s character is called Fern Thanos.

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