Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"What worked so well in The Rider, namely that people were playing versions of themselves, falls flat because of the casting of McDormand in the lead." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

The unwieldy tone of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (Centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival and the Journey section in London), based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder from 2017, is set from the get-go, when we learn about the fate of Empire, a small town in Nevada that ceased to exist within six months after US Gypsum shut down its plant there in 2011 after 88 years. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow, who, after a short seasonal stint as a Christmas helper in an Amazon warehouse, begins a new life as a modern-day nomad.

Her quest to find work resembles that of Vincent Lindon’s character in Stéphane Brizé‘s devastating The Measure Of A Man, and he did not even have the comfort of nature and the vastness of the American West to console him. In her previous films, The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao worked primarily with non-professional actors playing versions of themselves, here they are joined by the likes of McDormand and David Strathairn. In one of the two most beautiful sequences, Fern spots a group of cowboys, led by singer/songwriter Cat Clifford, in the distance, at dusk (cinematography by Joshua James Richards). The second is of swallows seen through an iPhone, hundreds of them at a cliff by the sea, little broken eggshells floating on the waves.

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The story of an entire town being erased by the closure of one plant is an important one, but the film never returns to this disastrous fallout and abandonment of the people. When Fern does return, it is a sentimental revisiting of a domestic view which is meaningless for everyone else. A second story worth telling, which is also begun and then dropped, another missed opportunity, is that of seasonal workers for Amazon. Shots of the warehouse and its functioning in the middle of nowhere lift the film momentarily to another level. Fern wants to stay on after the New Year but cannot.

What worked so well in The Rider, namely that people were playing versions of themselves, falls flat because of the casting of McDormand in the lead. This has little to do with her acting, but with the fact that she is a movie star. A woman struggling for survival, living in a van, is nowhere near a version of herself, as much as she tries to convince us of it. Throughout, it is very difficult to suspend so much disbelief, especially when we hear the stories told to Fern by the others who are non-actors. The timing of the film being shown during a global pandemic and an ever-widening wealth and health divide also is not in its favor.

On a smaller level, quite a few scenes feel outright contrived. Why for instance do we need to watch her pull over to answer the call of nature as she walks from her van out into the prairie? Wouldn’t she do this right next to the vehicle, as absolutely no one is around anywhere? With her temporary employment at Amazon over - “See you next year, Fern!” -, the camping ground becomes too expensive for her as she is no longer on what is chillingly called the “Camper Force list”.

A little black dog, left by a worker who had a stroke, is offered to Fern to keep. She says no. We see the dog standing outside the campground concierge and the matter is never heard from again. Why did Zhao include this? To make us feel pity for the dog? For Fern? The use of animals in fictional films is tricky, they resist being used as props and audiences sense that.

Fern’s friend Patty (Patricia Grier) tells her of a gathering of nomads and off she drives there. Bob Wells is the head of the group and he talks to them of “the tyranny of the dollar” and that the Titanic is sinking. Several of the desert dwellers tell their story or variations of it. This is when Nomadland begins to lose its focus. It starts to play out as if we are now watching a documentary with McDormand both as the interviewer and filmmaker surrogate.

Nestled among the nomads is another good actor, David Strathairn, who does his damndest to fit in with the group and simultaneously make sense of his role as Dave to us. They swap objects and he gives Fern a can opener. Later he asks her to dance with him at what is called the “Yacht Club”, a dingy space without a yacht or marina in sight. The shooting of the dance scene is clumsy (and not only because I had just seen a marvellous example of how to do it right by Shabier Kirchner in Steve McQueen’s Blues party film Lovers Rock, the Opening Night selection in New York).

On and on Fern goes in the same downtrodden way. Next come jobs at a quartz mine, repairing flat tires, her friend Swankie (Charlene Swankie) who is on her way to Alaska. She only has seven or eight months left to live and tells Fern about her great experiences in the wild with a moose family, a white pelican and the swallows in a cliff mentioned above. Fern looks at old photos, spots a buffalo, floats naked in a brook, and walks around in her nightgown on the prairie. The movie runs circles around a faux misery.

Strathairn returns. Did somebody suggest that we need a love-ish (as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Frances Price in French Exit might put it) story in here? Besides the can opener he gives her liquorice sticks because he wants her to quit smoking. He carries a box out for her and inadvertently breaks her most precious plates. Their personal value was signalled to us early on, otherwise we might simply take them for ugly kitchenware.

Then there is a beet harvest we don’t really get to see, and Wall Drug in South Dakota, and a big Dinosaur on the side of the road. The beautiful and calming scene with the cowboys is followed by Fern’s visit to her sister who lives with her real estate husband in the suburbs. This is the epitome of what Fern does not want and ran away from long ago. “Nomads are not so different from what the pioneers did,” says the sister and mourns the big gap of not having Fern in her life.

She can’t stand it and next visits Dave’s family where she manages to stay in an actual house a bit longer. His son James (Tay Strathairn) had a baby who, playing a version of his real baby-self, provokes a nice moment. Strathairn has to repeat the line “I like being around you” twice, because the baby keeps interrupting. This is how grateful we are for a moment of truthfulness from the youngest member of the cast in the house.

The direction of Nomadland (winner of the Golden Lion as Best Film in the Venice Film Festival) is a cul-de-sac of its own making.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2020
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Nomadland packshot
A woman in her sixties who, after losing everything following the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, lives as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
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Director: Chloé Zhao

Writer: Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder

Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Patricia Grier, Cat Clifford, Tay Strathairn, Peter Spears

Year: 2020

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: US

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