Long-time readers of my work will remember my fondness for the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I liked it so much; I made it my film of the year for 2018. I also discovered an admiration for its lead actress, Frances McDormand, whose towering role in the movie was one of the primary reasons I enjoyed it so much. Imagine my delight then when I saw her new film receive so much praise and attention in the run-up to Oscar season.
I would be lying if I told you that the inclusion of McDormand didn’t help pique my interest in this film. After reading a bit about it in the run-up to release, I confess I didn’t think there was much to the narrative to indicate the movie would be anything special. The inclusion of McDormand as the lead actress is what caught my attention most about this film. I had also heard a lot about the director, Chloe Zhao, who is much acclaimed in independent American cinema circles. I haven’t seen any of her previous work personally, but her reputation was strong enough to add to the films overall draw.
Nomadland is the story of Fern (McDormand), a widow who lost her job and house in the fallout of the late 2000seconomic recession. She now lives a nomadic life in her van as part of a community of “vandwellers” who travel the country taking seasonal work and leading simple lives in their vans or motorhomes.
Despite its critical acclaim and award success, Nomadland has received a somewhat mixed response from audiences. Many refer to its slow pace and lack of overall narrative as reasons for not enjoying it. I can sympathise with this viewpoint to a certain extent; The film certainly isn’t a pulse-pounding, action-packed thriller; instead, it is a languid drama detailing the lives and adventures of a set of people with an alternative way of living. You can judge whether you would like this movie by how you react to hearing the phrase “languid drama “if you are in the market for a more entertaining crowd-pleaser, this probably isn’t for you. If such a thing does interest you, though, you will find a lot to like.
I find myself in the middle of these two arguments. On the one hand, I found it a relatively slow experience, focusing more on its subject matter and characters than on any one overarching story. As tends to be the case with many character focus dramas, there are stories woven into it, but none receive the full attention of a fully-fledged narrative. Merely they are experiences on the journey of the characters.
On the other hand, however, focusing more on the characters than on a story allows you to look at a broader palette of life from a different perspective. I discovered in my small amount of research that I do for each of my reviews that this film used very few professional actors. Instead, many of the characters were actual members of the nomad community, portraying broad versions of themselves. To what extent the stories they tell are actually their own is unknown to me, but they do a remarkable job of making the film feel remarkably authentic. It is a risk, of course, to put non-actors in roles of such prominence, but these non-performers are so natural in front of the camera, but it is hard to believe they do not do it for a living.
The key moments of character interactions are what gives this movie its depth. In particular, the interactions between McDormand’s character Fern and her friend Linda (Linda May) are some of the film’s most heartfelt. Along with further interactions with van dwelling guru Bob (Bob Wells), which shows a layer of grief that is seemingly present in all of the communities lives.
All of this having been said, and while I enjoyed the characters and their interactions immensely, I do feel like something is missing in this film. It is a film I can admire more than I can enjoy. I admire its vision, its focus on characters and their relationships, but there are parts of the movie where I am left feeling cold and uninvolved. I feel like the film as a whole is missing a central narrative that the characters can revolve around. There are many plot threads throughout the film, but none can claim to be the “main story”, as I said. There is the backdrop of the economic recession, and there are reflections on grief and loss and new beginnings; the film tries to be all of these things but settles on none.
While I admit the film left me cold in places, I did warm to the characters at points throughout the film. There is something about knowing that these characters are portrayed by authentic nomads that makes them all the more interesting, and that knowledge makes them more believable. While I wouldn’t recommend filling out your cast with non-actors as a general rule, in a film like this dealing with an alternative side of society, the extra shot of authenticity is what can make or break the movie.
Frances McDormand is excellent in her role, as always. Her character is in many ways the polar opposite of Mildred, her character from Three Billboards, But she still distinctive an expert on the plate. It feels like there is a lot of subtext to her character, she is not overly outgoing or headstrong, but her actions indicate a much stronger personality below the surface.
I can understand why this film was chosen for Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of picture the Academy likes. It is beautifully shot and acted, and even though there is a lack of prominent overarching narratives, it has many artistic merits. I can also understand why the film would not appeal to a broad audience. It is a niche film, as indeed many films like it are. It is slow and lacking in excitement, but that shouldn’t take away its achievements as a piece of art and as an exploration of a subculture.
While I don’t think it’s a film I shall be visiting any time soon, there was a lot I liked about Nomadland. The acting and characters were Stella, as was its presentation. For what it lacked in the story department, it makes up for inauthenticity. I enjoyed it more than Mank, But I think it lacked a certain spark to make it stand out as something special. I believe in the grand scheme of things, this is the best picture with her that would have eventually, and it must be said sadly, been lost to time if it weren’t for the historical significance of its wins. It’s enjoyable enough for its characters, but I would understand if it doesn’t appeal to you.