‘Nomadland’ and the road not taken
Aidan O'Malley | Wednesday, February 24, 2021
I watched Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” on my laptop. It is an ugly sight — a Samsung I’ve had since my freshman year of high school that can no longer even be described as stainless steel, due to a variety of brown and silver splotches I’ve so graciously adorned it with. It takes approximately five minutes to load, it overheats if I play Minecraft and if you’ve ever had the distinct pleasure of joining me on Zoom … well, I need not describe the experience.
And yet, I watched Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” on my laptop. I could perhaps have seen it in a theater — in the same way that your least favorite middle school English teacher might ask, “I don’t know, CAN you go to the bathroom?” If I asked the University if I MAY see “Nomadland” in theaters, they would say no, and if I asked myself if I SHOULD see “Nomadland” in theaters, he would say no, too.
So I watched Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” on my laptop. In doing so, I was afraid that I might miss the majesty of the cinema — the enormity of the screen, the smallness of the audience. After all, a film like “Nomadland” is uniquely suited to the theater, with its sweeping shots of the American West as our heroine, Fern (Frances McDormand), roams the good Earth in search of solace. I’m sure it plays beautifully at the multiplex.
But it is a great testament to Zhao, McDormand and the entire “Nomadland” team that, despite watching it on my laptop — on Hulu, on a web browser — I was completely and totally swept away. Watching “Nomadland” is like flying. It’s like looking out the window of an airplane if there was no glass between you and the planet. The longer I watched it, the more I felt as if the walls of my dorm room were expanding — exploding, really. I felt big and small all at once. I saw not only the vastness of the world, but the vastness of living a life. I loved it.
“Nomadland” has been a darling on the festival circuit since it first premiered in September, becoming the first film to win both the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. That invariably means in a few months — after it’s sure to have made an appearance at the Oscars — it will become quite vogue to dismiss it. What a shame that time will be. By both careful design and unforeseen circumstance, “Nomadland” is a dignified response to the existential anxieties of 2020. It is a film that speaks deeply and truly to the economic uncertainty of the era, to our individual quests for comfort and agency and to the big, beautiful world we hope to return to.
There is not much here in the way of story. When we first meet Fern, she is living out of her van — a crappy but consistent vehicle not unlike my laptop. In time, we will learn how she got there, although perhaps a better question than “how” is “why.” For now, all we know is she wanders the country, driving her van from nowhere to the middle of nowhere and picking up work as she does so.
Along the way, she crosses paths with other “nomads.” They are often older and typically white, people who have adopted this lifestyle both as a consequence of capitalism (did I mention this takes place post-2008?) and as a last-ditch effort to determine their own destinies. Zhao, drawing from her previous work like “The Rider,” casts non-actors in these roles — real-life nomads playing fictional characters. But how fictional are they? Does it even matter? As Tim O’Brien put it, “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.” Zhao’s supporting cast is integral to the film; their testimonies color it with wisdom and warmth.
Then, of course, there is Frances McDormand. She is simply an acting giant, and Fern, somehow, is her most poignant performance to date. She is not called on to yell obscenities or don a goofy accent, only to exist. Only to be. David Strathairn appears as the only other professional actor — another nomad with whom Fern continually crosses paths — but he doesn’t quite blend into his surroundings like McDormand.
The film would be nothing without the cinematography of Joshua James Richards, who pairs stunning Steadicam of the natural world with intimate close-ups that capture Fern’s interiority. Almost unconsciously, his work makes us feel claustrophobic in suburbia or alienated in an Amazon warehouse as Fern occasionally dips her toe back into “civilization.” Meanwhile, the score by Ludovico Einaudi is evocative and moving (though it’s ineligible for awards because it comes off his album, “Seven Days Walking”).
I’m realizing now that my review is more than 800 words; at The Observer, we cap them well below that. Lucky for me, we’re partly online this week — I can afford to get lost in my thoughts.
I implore you to get lost in “Nomadland.”
Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
If you liked: “The Rider,” “Into the Wild”
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5