Nomadland movie review: Frances McDormand will win an Oscar for the least amount of acting she's ever done
Nomadland movie review: Barring an upset, Frances McDormand will win an Oscar for this, but how much of what she does here is actually acting?
The trick with Ludovico Einaudi is to use him sparingly, like a faucet. Leave his soft piano playing for just a couple of extra seconds, and you risk emptying your reservoir of tears. The first time you hear his music in Nomadland is 15 minutes in. By then, the sadness has already set in, and Einaudi arrives not with a tissue paper in hand, but a picture of your dead puppy. It’s all a bit much.
Writen, produced, edited, and directed by Chloe Zhao, Nomadland is 21st Century Oscar-bait in its most shameless form — almost as eye-rollingly obvious in its intentions as some of those awards-friendly period dramas that the Weinsteins used to produce a decade or two ago. Barring a major upset, star Frances McDormand will win the Academy Award for best actress, although I’d argue that this is only partially a performance.
Watch the Nomadland trailer here
She plays a woman named Fern, whom we first meet in 2011 — shortly after she loses her job in the fallout of the Great Recession. But instead of finding a new job, the middle-aged Fern sells most of her worldly belongings and takes to the road in her van. Nomadland invites you to ride shotgun with her for a year, as she drives from town to town, looking for seasonal jobs and living like a modern-day nomad. “I’m not homeless,” she says proudly when she runs into concerned old acquaintances one day; “I am houseless. There’s a difference.”
Because she is so loosely drawn — Zhao’s screenplay gives her the thinnest of backstories — you get the sense that it is not Fern who is learning the ropes of her new lifestyle, but McDormand.
In one scene, when another, more seasoned nomad teaches Fern how to perform quick remedial repairs on her van, it’s almost as if she’s teaching the actor. “Are you going to quit on me?” the nomad asks, and Fern/McDormand replies with a look of steely determination, “No, I’m not going to quit on you.” The scene plays like behind-the-scenes bootcamp footage. The movie, meanwhile, gives the impression that they released McDormand into the wilderness and filmed her for a year — almost like one of Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Down series, or that Bhai Bhai video featuring Salman Khan.
Further blurring the lines between reality and fiction, Zhao has cast actual nomads in ‘supporting roles’. With only a whiff of a conventional narrative, large portions of the movie are devoted to Fern either walking or driving, like an old-timey frontierswoman. On one memorable occasion, she goes for a swim in a pond, and in a decidedly more unforgettable scene, she takes a dump in her van.
Even though Fern doesn’t have a ‘house’ in the formal sense of the word, there is still a looming threat of her ‘home’ being repossessed. This is one of the many homages that Zhao pays to neorealist classics such as Bicycle Thieves, although Nomadland’s two distinct tones are always at odds with each other. On the one hand, Zhao has made a visual poem, not unlike the films of Terrence Malick or Gus Van Sant’s Death trilogy. But on the other hand, there’s a documentary realism to her commentary about life in a post-recession world.
Nomadland is more like a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. That it comes to India at a time with public sentiment about Amazon (which appears in an extended cameo in the film) is at its lowest, is a cruel coincidence that'll likely be lost on most. Amazon itself missed the point quite resoundingly.
This isn’t the sort of lifestyle that can, or should, be romanticised. This isn’t like quitting your job and moving to the hills. There is real victimhood in living like the nomads. These people have been wronged, by greedy corporations and corrupt governments. More than a Western, Nomadland is a survival drama. And Zhao’s Dharma Productions approach to telling this story, aided in no small part by that Einaudi score, comes dangerously close to resembling some of those posts that privileged social media influencers share, admiring the spirit of the downtrodden.
Here’s an emerging Hollywood filmmaker, who will probably be an Oscar-winner by the time her next film, the $200 million Marvel superhero spectacle Eternals, is released. She's now a part of the elite. While Nomadland has no shortage of heart, where is the outrage? By repeatedly arguing that Fern’s lifestyle is her choice, the film ignores the decades of economic oppression that influenced her to make the decision in the first place.
Fern is on near-constant move physically, but emotionally, she’s more-or-less static. Aside from a rare moment of conventional exposition towards the end, it takes a rather clinical approach to probing Fern as a person, and examining the grief that she is dealing with. For a film that relies almost entirely on one character — Fern’s van has a larger dramatic arc in the film than any other human being besides her — it should’ve embraced what it is: a coming-of-middle-age story about someone learning to live again.
Director - Chloe Zhao
Cast - Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar