And now for the second half of today's Oscar Film Journal - I've already talked about the film and performance I think SHOULD have won at the Oscars, here's the movie that DID win.
Based on Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, director Chloe Zhao's meditative, immersive docudrama stars Frances McDormand as a widow who lost her job at a manufacturing plant, the only major business in her town (which itself shut down once the plant folded), and became a traveling member of the "gig economy." She takes seasonal work at a nearby Amazon plant and then drives around the country working at various locales such as a Badlands campground, the Wall Drug restaurant, and a sugar beet plant, but spends part of her time in an Arizona community with other nomads who haven't been able to find enough work to keep a permanent residence.
The film is essentially a series of little episodes and vignettes as Fern (McDormand) develops friendships with her fellow roamers, spends some time with her sister in California, visits another nomad Dave (played by David Strathairn) who's now staying with his family, and just tries to keep her van maintained. It's more of a non-narrative experience than a traditional film, its uniqueness no doubt the reason it earned so many accolades; Nomadland is about evoking mood and setting, not so much about a story.
Aside from McDormand, Strathairn and a couple other actors, everyone else in the film is a real person playing themselves, mostly vandwellers and in one case a famous nomad YouTuber named Bob Wells, who served as one of the book's inspirations. Wells organizes the annual Arizona gathering and helps others learn to adopt the same minimalist lifestyle he's chosen.
I think Nomadland falls under the category of a film I admired more than enjoyed. The cinematography beautifully captures the vistas and landscapes of the Nevada and Arizona deserts, the South Dakota hills, the California oceans, and some breathtaking dusk and night sky views. The film's deliberate pacing allows the viewer to take a step back and just feel it rather than be actively engaged. I'd liken it in some ways to the films of Werner Herzog, who was a big believer in what he called "the voodoo of location." Nomadland is certainly overflowing with that; sights like the ones found here are part of the reason I've always wanted to take a cross-country drive. As McDormand herself said at the Oscars, everyone planning to watch this film should do so on the biggest screen they can find, as the natural beauty of the terrain is its primary hook.
The story itself is barely present; Fern just spends the film's 108 minutes kind of existing, going wherever the money is and being at peace with the only way of life she can afford or stand. In terms of an Oscar-winning performance I wouldn't say McDormand's work here is at that level. Frances McDormand is a wonderful talent and can't help being really good at worst in every film, but her performance here isn't at all one of her definitive bits of acting. She already had two performances like that, and each of them won her an Oscar. This role basically consists of her reacting and interacting with her surroundings and she does and says very little to convey her character's emotions or backstory. Nomadland isn't really an actor's movie, it's more like a documentary where a famous person self-immerses in a particular routine for a little while to show the audience what it's like. Why the Academy thought this performance was superior to Carey Mulligan's, I'll never know.
All that said though, Nomadland is worth a viewing, if for no other reason than as a way to experience something unusual. I get why it's garnered so much acclaim; it's certainly unlike any other film you'll see at the moment. While it wasn't near the top of my Best Picture choices, at least I understand the thinking behind its selection for that award. Go into this film with patience and curiosity and you'll enjoy it on some level. As Roger Ebert was fond of saying, "It's not *what* a movie is about, but *how* it is about it." Nomadland is quite successful for what it set out to achieve - a deep dive into a way of life most of us will never know.
Side Note: Why is this movie rated R? Because of one shot where McDormand floats naked in a natural spring? The MPA ratings system is a sick joke.
I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.
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