Published on February 21st, 2021 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Chloe Zhao’s (The Rider) latest film isn’t without its artful flashes of profundity, yet it also gives off a polarizing and confusing message about poverty.
There is a point in Nomadland in which Fern (Frances McDormand) finds herself in, well, No Man’s Land, a vast region of plateaus and valleys. She quickly ventures out on her own, only to become lost. Frantically searching for the group she came with, there is a moment in which the film seems like its taking a different direction, adding some real stakes to her journey. Will she get out alive? Will she continue her nomadic ways after experiencing such dire circumstances? The answer is that a moment later, she finds her tour guide standing atop a plateau looking out at the squalid desert. And then the movie just chugs along; she packs up her van and continues her journey.
This moment highlights both the philosophy and the real conundrum with Chloe Zhao’s latest directorial outing. While the film is refreshingly unforgiving in its plotless ways, it is also torn between two poles, two equally compelling messages. On one hand, the movie suggests that she is a kind of modern day, middle-aged warrior, finding her individuality and meaning within the ruins of late Capitalism and her own tragic personal life. The film at times builds her up as an inspirational figure, basking in an increasingly resilient life-force. Yet, on the other hand, the film wants to disparage the predicament of Fern and her fellow nomads, citing the ills of our neo-liberal economy in which the middle-aged are left by the wayside and smaller industries have given way to behemoths like Amazon. We see the matter-of-factness of this gig economy as she floats from temporary job to another, barely scraping by to make ends meet. It’s tiring and deflating work, but Fern performs her duties with a smile on her face. Are we supposed to see this as a kind of modern-day brainwashing? Is her disposition in life a massive critique of modern day America? Or a celebration of independence?
The film never really comes to a conclusion, straddling the line in an awkward way. Sometimes it feels like one movie, a movie we can get behind and other times it feels like something entirely different and much harder to swallow. And it is not a purposeful straddling; it does not walk this tightrope because it has anything conflicting or nuanced to say. It merely floats between two points, romantically basking in its character all the while kind of passively putting down her position in society. There is an air of smugness to it all—Hollywood playing dress up—that irked me while watching it. It reminded me of another celebrated film in the annals of Hollywood’s past, The Grapes of Wrath—a film that takes its Depression-era subjects and puts them on a pedestal, almost as if the poor are necessary to making America great. Or something like that.
It also reminded me of the character studies of yesteryear, particularly that of the great Hollywood Renaissance of the 70s. Movies like Five Easy Pieces and Zabriskie Point came to mind, character studies that basked in the vastness of America in relation to the smallness of the protagonist. But these films took a stance, they had a fire to them, and they were very much coated in the zeitgeist of the time. I’m not sure where to place Nomadland, a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too, much like a humblebragging Instagram post. The small hint of the phony altruism pollutes its emotional core, and what is left is a pretty but ultimately convoluted parable. I walked away from the film confused as to what I was supposed to receive, though the knowledge that I was supposed to receive something important could not be shaken.
There is still much to admire about the film. Frances McDormand performs with a ferocity as always. She puts everything into Fern, really transforming into her even though the film that surrounds her doesn’t know what it wants to be. Zhao directs the film with a Terrence Malick-esque approach, circling the drain in seemingly insignificant moments in order to impress upon us the poetic beauty of our places in nature. It works as an artful façade, one that can easily lull viewers into her gaze, as confusing and privileged as it may be. As a character study, the film is superb in its visual candor.
There are times in Nomadland that feel straight up documentary-like. Characters sort of proselytize to the camera, extolling the virtues of the nomad lifestyle. On other occasions, the film sort of stops in its tracks for a philosophy lecture from some bearded guy. That’s what the film is working with, and something about it just doesn’t ring true. If Chloe Zhao really wanted to make a film on this subject, a documentary would’ve suited it better and probably would’ve been less polarizing in its message. But as it stands, it’s a beautiful piece of fluff, floating in the breeze, trying to make itself known and understood but unable to really change its own chemistry. It bites off quite a mouthful, but never really succeeds in being entertaining or particularly enlightening.