'Nomadland' Review: Postcards from Our Dystopia

There’s a lot to like in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a strong lead, some beautiful cinematography, an empathetic portrayal of the working class, and despite its heavy subject matter the film somehow oozes hope which has been in short supply in our current zeitgeist. It’s no wonder that in an unprecedented move this served as the centerpiece at three major festivals this year: Venice, Toronto, and New York, while making enough noise to warrant Academy Award speculation. Unfortunately, buried beneath its realist veneer and uplifting tone is a frustrating regurgitation of American myth-making that pays lip service to, but ultimately ignores, the brutal causes and conditions of poverty. The sad result is a glossy, overly sentimental film that contorts the devastation caused by the 2008 crash into a celebration of America’s spirit and its traditions.

‘I like to work,’ proclaims Frances McDormand as Fern, early on in the film, and in Nomadland’s romanticized America, this ‘will to work’ is all you need. Fern, who had lived in a company town that no longer exists after the recession, is immediately depicted as self-made and self-sustaining. This affirmation of Fern’s work ethic and her refusal to accept charity is repeated throughout as if Zhao is quietly reminding us that this is no ‘welfare queen’. The conversation around poverty and welfare has always been racially charged in this country, and like so many post-election op-eds, Nomadland’s vision of poverty lies in the white rural and white suburban spaces often coded as ‘the real’ America. The film valorizes Fern for boldly refusing assistance, reaffirming the same right-wing myths of ‘rugged American individualism’ that serve as stumbling blocks to a proper safety-net for food, shelter, and healthcare. “I don’t make films about politics,” Zhao said at a Q&A at Telluride, which is a frustrating notion not just because all film is inherently political, but doubly so here, as she adopts the language of social-realism and uses non-actors to depict and make value judgments about American poverty.

This line about being apolitical was prompted by a pointed question about how the director gained access to an Amazon warehouse prominently featured in the film. The shots depicting Fern working at Amazon feature smiling employees, and a brief digression to depict the warehouse safety training and protocols. Each frame of this sequence is so saturated with logos that I had to triple-check that the film wasn’t produced by Bezos himself. Amazon’s positive presence creates a queasy effect given this trillion-dollar corporation is notorious for inhumane work conditions, warehouse injury rates (nearly double the industry standard), as well as their spying and union-busting activities. Even as I write this, news breaks that over 19,000 workers got Covid-19 – a figure Amazon has been fighting to keep hidden all summer as it was doubling its profits. And yet, back in Nomadland, Amazon is simply presented as ‘good work’, while its warehouse is shown as a place filled with community that intertwines with the fabric of the film, its logo lingers on screen next to beautiful vistas as an integral part of the American landscape.

Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao, 2020)
Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao, 2020)

On a technical level McDormand is excellent as Fern, at once stone-faced yet warm, she seamlessly juggles the various facets of her character with the confidence and prowess we’ve come to expect, but which deserves to be highlighted nonetheless. However, there is a tension between her performance and the presence of so many non-actors playing versions of themselves. Scenes of McDormand, who has a 10 million dollar net worth, scrubbing toilets take on an uncomfortable performative air in the presence of so many working-class non-actors who might very well be living this homeless reality as we speak. Zhao’s ample humanism finds her filming long earnest monologues from these performers that would feel at home in a documentary, but fit awkwardly within the context of the narrative. More often than not, these digressions stop the film dead in its tracks. Meanwhile, a thick Hallmark piano score hovers in the air waiting to triumphantly pounce whenever a character monologues about the open road or a postcard-worthy shot fills the screen. The film seems at odds with the artifice of its McDormand narrative, and the loose almost documentary-style work with non-actors, which creates a frustrating and disjointed effect.

This thematic dissonance pervading both style and content is perhaps best exemplified by the films’ callback to the famous closing shot of The Searchers. In the Ford classic, John Wayne walks from our doorway into the distance, he is a Confederate relic and a reminder of its violence and racism. There is no redemption or rehabilitation, he is the embodiment of the past and thus is unable to join us in the house of the American future – the door swings shut until the entire frame is black. Fern stands on the doorway as well, but here she is a victim of America’s present, a victim of corporate greed and barbarity. She is unable to return because her home has been destroyed by an economic collapse that resulted from these systems, and she sets out onto the road having been robbed of the only life she has ever known. Like most of Nomadland, it’s a beautifully shot sequence, and yet, connecting these two moments represents something profoundly darker than the romantic vision laid before us. Nomadland’s celebratory conclusion is a subtle recalibration of the American mythos: Our greatest tragedies are no longer behind us, but instead proud affirmations of America’s present. Our homelessness is not a struggle to overcome, but a continuation of a bold American tradition. Our poverty is no longer a symptom of a broad systemic failure, but a pathway to a proud and glowing American future.

Check out the rest of my NYFF58 coverage in full reviews for the festival’s heavy hitters: Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran, Christian Petzold’s Undine, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock.

Click here to read my NYFF58 Week One coverage.

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The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.