(SPOILERS) This is dreadful slop, less appealing even than the contents of Frances McDormand’s poop bucket. I’d heard some criticism of Nomadland along the lines of Frances “as Fern” interviewing homeless types for two hours, but I doubted that could the sum of its parts. But no, that really is the Best Picture Oscar-winner’s patronising, self-congratulatory and entirely unconvincing remit. There’s an essential dissonance as soon as the film attempts to bridge these divides: the genuine dissolute and the feted millionaire thespian directed by a billionaire’s, sorry multimillionaire’s, daughter in the service of a grossly opportunistic project. And to what end? Why, to own nothing and be happy, of course.
Honestly, I thought Nomadland would never end. And I was in raptures when it did. Do I need to hear McDormand servicing her Shakespeare lust? No, I can wait for the fraternal partnership-rupturing Joel Coen movie for that. Do I need to see David Strathairn breaking Fern’s plates? No, I’d much rather watch him belting out Belter patois in The Expanse. Do I need to see Fern/Frances conveying studious attentiveness as she feeds off her homeless subjects for the movie’s dubious gain? No, I can catch a Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson or once even Clive James or Alan Whicker, documenting true-life subjects more pithily (if I really must). Nomadland is Borat without the laughs. Not that Borat has any laughs in it, so maybe they’re closer together than you’d think at first glance. Make a goddamn documentary, Chloé, if that’s what you really want, but don’t attempt to pass this masquerade off as a drama, particularly when it is so facile and rudimentary in its purpose. If Zhao’s hybrid style works for you, fine. More power to you. I found it achingly distracting, phoney and superficial.
Zhao’s film is based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, about older Americans forced into nomadic lifestyles in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The movie, like Zhao’s previous The Rider, was one of Obama’s favourites of the year, which ought to tell you a lot about one of the architects of upheaval (there’s no need to draw partisan lines in this; when one of the staunchest advocates of “the tyranny of the dollar”, as the movie’s figurehead vandweller Bob Wells calls it, is promoting your movie, then it’s evident that flagrant hypocrisy knows no bounds).
We join Nomadland in 2011. Fern (McDormand) has lost her job in Nevada when the local plant shuts down. With her husband also having died recently, she sets out in a van, taking on seasonal work and hobnobbing with other nomads (“No, I’m not homeless. I’m just… houseless. Not the same thing, right?”) All well and good. I don’t doubt McDormand’s righteous liberal intentions (she’s also a producer). Zhao’s inauthenticity of background has been expectedly deflected by her similar genuineness (you can tell she’s genuine, as her next movie is for Marvel). What may work for a non-fiction, journalistic work doesn’t necessarily transfer in dramatized form, however. For starters, the drama simply isn’t dramatic. We’ve seen Oscar winners portraying the homeless before, but at least Robin Williams was doing it in a wacky Gilliam movie.
McDormand’s previous Oscars were appreciably deserved, but she’s nothing but an impostor here, and the seams always show. Whenever she or Strathairn are in frame it’s a case of “Look, the blessed actors are trying to fit in”. And there’s something vaguely offensive about McDormand’s poverty-porn faux sympathy as she attentively quizzes the non-actors, who dutifully recite chapter and verse of their roads to the road. Nomadland is a beautifully filmed, exploitative vox pop and as redundant as that sounds. Fern has problems here or there. Has a flattie, is moved on for parking where she shouldn’t. She works at an Amazon un-fulfilment centre, appropriately enough: a non-billionaire’s daughter receiving endorsement form one of the world’s biggest. Amazon-approved Nomadland is a bit like military-stamped Top Gun, except really, its Disney approved. The picture is insidious like that. Strathairn’s Dave mildly pesters Fern for sex, I mean companionship, or something. And drops her plates.
The stilted tone – some might call it lo-fi, to be charitable – travels no better when Fern visits her extended family. Indeed, since this is presumably the most “written” section of the movie, the limitations of Zhao’s remit are most exposed here; it turns out the extended family are all devoted to their real-estate enterprises and investments. You know, like… the opposite to Fern’s new culturally rootless route. Oh, my! Fern’s sister tries to drum up her choice, that she’s one of the “nomads… pioneers, part of an ancient tradition”. In common with such clumsy tactics, whenever more is asked of Fern than an empathic look, McDormand seems at sea. Even quoting Romeo and Juliet. Certainly, the suddenly wise Fern is an odd one (“Just go. Be a grandfather” she instructs Strathairn).
Nomadland may appear to be a portrait of hardship-and-yet-freedom borne through necessity – “I could live in a RV, travel, and not have to work for the rest of my life” – but once you have disenfranchisement, the next step is ushering the survivors (of whatever nature) into the reality of tomorrow, where there’s no room for warriors of the wasteland, or even just noble travellers. There’s nothing organic about “promoting” this via a Hollywood movie.
Ludovico Einaudi’s score infuses melancholy into cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ landscapes as Fern looks on wistfully/pensively/contemplatively (but not constipatedly, not given that five-gallon shit bucket). If the movie were deserving of any Oscars, they would be for Richards’ work. Not for being a movie (best/worst faux-documentary?) or for directing or lead performance. I also couldn’t help but notice the picture reaching for certain paradigmatic touchstones. A young guy professes to having a lighter fashioned from dinosaur bone – we’re all like yeah, right, which should always be our reaction to dinosaur bones – and another man invites a group of nomads to “hold out your hand and look at a star”. The same man who shows them Jupiter through a telescope… and boy does it look exactly like the NASA-sanctioned pics!
If Zhao can inject such “authentic” flavour on this subject, the extreme reverse of what she’s used to, just imagine how she’ll wow us with Eternals. I really hope it’s shot EXACTLY this way, with Kumail Nanjiani, all buffed up, interviewing the cast about being actors playing superheroes. It’s sure to be almost as fascinating and fulfilling as Nomadland.