Nomadland capitalising on Western guilt of capitalism
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Go into Nomadland with an open mind and no agenda and it will knock you off your socks

The Nomadland, a film by a Chinese female director Chloé Zhao, has been creating some waves in the past twelve months. Zhao scooped gongs at Venice Film Festival (Golden Lion), TIFF (People’s Choice Award), Critics Choice Awards and now, BAFTA (Best Director) too. As if that alone is not enough, we might stress that the film was unreleased to the wider audience at the moment of BAFTA nominations, which is against BAFTAs own qualifying criteria set in June 2020 to accommodate for release schedules affected by Coronavirus. An unheard of move from BAFTA. But trust us, the film is worth the wait.

In the Nomadland, Frances McDormand (Fargo, Two Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) stars as Fern, a widow and former substitute teacher in Empire, Nevada – a town wiped off the map by a factory closure. The film portrays America’s 60- and 70-something generation whose economic future was shattered by the 2008 crash. They are grey-haired middle-class strivers reduced to poverty who can’t afford to retire and can’t afford to own a house. So they have become nomads, a new American tribe roaming the country in camper vans in which they sleep, make friends and travel from one seasonal job to another. The co-producer Peter Spears admitted he loved the book because “it dispelled the romanticism of hitting the road”. And that the Nomadland film does just that. 

Nomadland Film Review

Nomadland is all about subtleties

Nomadland Poster

The following review must come with a disclosure. I had to watch it twice because the first time I watched the Nomadland, it left me underwhelmed. Having amassed so many awards and accolades, I was expecting a film that would knock me off my socks with it’s engaging and though-provoking dialogues and strongly punctuated character arch. The first time, alas, the film was lost on me. 

However, I managed to gather myself together and did what I never do – I decided to give it a second chance. This time, I was going into it with no expectations whatsoever. I knew it couldn’t let me down twice. Turned out, the Nomadland is all about subtleties.

The cinematography skilfully portrays lofty open landscapes with a small long figure in the wide world. The scenery reminded me of old Westerns, which the DoP Josh Richards confirmed served as visual inspiration. The director Chloé Zhao admitted that it was to play with a concept of an open road, with “searching for something that is not here”.

Capitalising on Western guilt of capitalism

The Nomadland has hit the nail on the head capitalising on a Western guilt of capitalism (no pun intended), on our shared grief of losing loved ones and losing our freedoms to the worldwide pandemic, on our cabin fever from the past twelve months of lockdown. Sad as it is, I’m afraid the Nomadland might be also an omen of what’s to come for so many more people, courtesy of Biden’s policies that resulted in more closures and job losses for working-class Americans. 

Politics aside, the Nomadland is a masterful layer cake of emotions, relationship dynamics and life’s hurdles. Maybe it feels so realistic because it’s based on a factual book and features real-life nomads. The inspiration behind the film is Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century‘ that has become a best-seller and caught the attention of co-producer Peter Spears. The film is also inspired by the radical nomadist and anti-capitalist leader Bob Wells who also appears in a film as himself, delivering passionate anti-capitalist speeches. Which explains the not-so-subtle anti-capitalist sentiment of the film.

The character development

The Nomads, portrayed seemingly destitute but utterly free. The film makes you questions where free choice ends and desperation begins. The film presents this paradox when Fern’s sister Dolly (played by one of McDormand’s oldest friends in real life, Melissa Smits) makes it obvious that Fran has always been ‘different’, strong enough to make a deliberate choice to leave the stereotypical life behind and chase something that isn’t here.

The scene of Fern visiting her sister Dolly to borrow money for van repairs is full of subtle family dynamics, judgment and not-talking heart to heart. Fern’s sisters throwaway comment that “it’s always out there that is interesting” adds layers of complexity to the entire story. You stop seeing Fran as a woman in her sixties at this point in time. The scene takes you to a journey to Fern’s childhood and sheds the light on who Fern is. You start seeing that it is thanks to a sequence of individual choices that Ferns is where she is now. Even if it’s not apparent to her.

That very scene marked the beginning of a third act where Fern relaises she was spending “too much time remembering Bob [her late husband]” and finally finds a new path and learns to enjoy her life as it is.

Scenes I would like to un-see

Speaking of director decision, the film depicts quite a few scenes that are ‘intrusive’ by any account: Fern sorting through her panties, defecating in to a bucket in a car, relieving herself in an open field… All those scenes showed too much for my liking. Of course, it’s likely to show the lack of privacy and personal space for Nomads. Perhaps a bit excessive and a desperate attempt – I would prefer to unseen those. Maybe it were those moments Frances McDorman referred to in the live Q&A after the premiere when she said this film made her “face my limitations and challenge my vanity”.

Casting and working with non-actors

Speaking at the Q&A about casting and working with non-actors, Chloé Zhao admits it was easy to make nomads trust her with their stories. “A lot of people come to them with their vision of what nomads should do or think or what their life should be like. Whereas we just came there to listen. People want to tell their story. And with Fran’s listening skills, we were able to capture the moment of two people connecting.” 

Frances McDorman however, admitted she found it harder to work along non-actors. “I’m an actor, I like my lines, I like having several takes. And, usually, you get better as you do several takes. [but with non-actors], the first time is the best time. The longer you dwell on a moment, the less it’s alive. So it was more relaxing to work with Dave (David Strathairn), a professional actor.

Script allowed for unexpected moments

According to DoP Josh Richards, the way Chloé Zhao developed the story is she allowed the story to lead the film. For example, a young nomad Doug (Douglas G. Soul) wasn’t even in a script. But he ‘happened’, was written into the script and even became a member of the crew joining arts department. Speaking of the crew, the total of twenty eight people created the film. 

The Nomadland will premiere on Star on Disney+ on 30th April and will be in cinemas on 17th. We strongly recommend watching the film on a big screen.

Editor in Chief | Website | + posts

Editor in Chief of Ikon London Magazine, journalist, film producer and founder of The DAFTA Film Awards (The DAFTAs).