Rated R for a lot of Frances McDormand having to relieve herself on camera. There's a couple scenes of this. There's also full-on nudity as she bathes and floats down a river. In my head, there's swearing, but I couldn't point out exactly what was said. There's some mild drug use and the characters smoke. A pretty normal R-rating.
DIRECTOR: Chloe Zhao
Nomadland is excellent. There. I didn't want to bury the lede. I didn't want to start with something clever showing off my blog. (Although, the very metacontext that I'm providing right now may defeat the purpose.) There are some movies that just knock your socks off and Nomadland might be one of them. It's not like a ton of things happen in the movie. But Nomadland kind of speaks to me on this deeper level and I absolutely recommend it to everyone, despite the fact that it is kind of boring.
I know that this one is going to be hard to write, despite the fact that the movie almost invites commentary. It's when I get overly excited about a film that I kind of fly off the rails. If a movie sucks, then I can go to town. But when a movie nails so much, how do I possibly write without being hyperbolic. Because at the end of the day, I really really like this movie, but I'll probably not end up watching it for fun. There's a chance if I'm trying to sell it to someone, but that's as far as I'll go. (Note: I think I psyched myself out about writing. I've been putting it off all day and now I'm crunched for time. Luckily, I have students taking a test today, so I'm going to race them the time in this class.) It's not necessarily a bummer of a movie. It's definitely on the depressing side. But there are some bummer movies and then there are some bummer movies. This wouldn't be qualified as a bummer movie. For all of the bleakness that this movie presents, there's something very optimistic about Fern's life.
It said that this was based on a nonfiction book. I get the vibe that Fern might be a composite of real people. That's really the big take away, I guess. As much as Fern is a sympathetic protagonist, Fern is representative of a culture that America has failed. It seems like I'm going to spiral into some old fashioned America-bashing, but this movie does that absolutely gorgeous thing of both celebrating America while critiquing it at the same time. America has failed the nomads in the sense that they are in this place where the American Dream didn't quite work. I know that the events of the story center around the economic recession of the Obama administration (technically the Bush / Obama years, but who is splitting hairs?), but there is something still very prescient and universal about the systematic poverty that hits a lot of Americans. Fern is an educated woman from a poor background. When a factory closes in America, there's a deep and lasting impact on a culture. It didn't matter that Fern didn't work at the plant in Empire. When Empire stops existing, so does life.
It's this haunting idea. There are towns out there that just stopped existing. There is an infrastructure there coupled with the potential for life to thrive. But instead, because there is no work, there are no people. It's almost like what would happen if there was an extreme drought. Employment has become one of those basic human needs like shelter or food. Without water, the land becomes barren. Without employment, the city no longer exists. Fern walking through those houses seems like this moment of confusion. These gorgeous (relatively) houses are there, completely abandoned. Fern very well could live in one of these houses as opposed to a van that she defecates in. But even a rudimentary look at her situation makes us aware that, as nice as these houses are, she wouldn't survive very long. Our dependence on capitalism has forced nomads to choose abysmal living conditions for the potential to work simple and temporary jobs. I'm thrown back to John Steinbeck and Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. People would travel the country, looking for work. It didn't matter that they could find housing (which they couldn't). It mattered that they found work.
But like Steinbeck, there is this idea that America is a beautiful place. Fern has the opportunity to live with people. From a human standpoint, Americans are really quite lovely. Fern keeps getting invites to live a life of comfort. We, in small groups, tend to be altruistic. (As proven by the Covid pandemic, we kind of suck on the grand scale.) But Fern also really does believe in the American Dream. It just looks like something very different than what I believe in. She sees the majesty of this great county. I can see why people abroad might want to visit the U.S. for vacation. For our many faults, we have an absolutely amazing piece of land here with so many different environments. The fact that Fern would live a dangerous life shows that she has priorities certain things in her life. While it may not have been her intention to begin with, Fern has found value in being a nomad. She loves the people she meets. Work becomes a means not just for survival, but for serenity. Her travels define her. I'm sure there have to be temptations to settle down and to accept mediocrity, but she never really does.
Yes, it is incredibly frustrating to see her travel from place to place. There are so many of those jobs that would probably hire her for the long haul. I know that she keeps working at Amazon for the seasonal work, but I know that she could probably get a job there permanently. The same thing with Wall Drug. But there's something about the passion of a situation that makes sense. I know that she used to be a teacher in Empire, but she no longer allows herself to be defined by work. If anything, she is defined by her nomadic lifestyle. I don't think that she's Bob. Bob kind of gets under my craw. I mean, he seems like a pretty nice dude and he is playing a fictionalized version of himself (Bob, I respect you but I don't agree with you). But she does have a kindship with people like Bob and Swankie and Linda May. It's the people in her life that live the same lifestyle that she does that brings her joy.
So yeah, it is a very depressing movie. Watching this level of poverty play out is disheartening. After all, one of her prized possessions is a collection of plates that her dad gifted her from yard sales. That was a moment of reflection on my part, looking at my 60 inch television in my very comfortable home. And then those plates break? She has to go to the bathroom in these demeaning areas. Heck, this guy decides to relieve himself in front of her and that's just part of life. But on the other end, Fern almost doesn't seem to care that his is her life. For as hard as everything always is for her, she clings to that life with such vigor that you know that it is special for her. She might view my life as limited because I can't just explore the Badlands on a whim. Freedom is the most important thing for her, so much so that it hinders making real attachment to people like Dave. Dave, even though he gets the nomadic lifestyle, isn't what Fern is.
Finally, I would like to applaud the use of actual nomads in the movie. My wife and I commented that it all felt so authentic. It's weird to think that people who aren't classically trained can sometimes be the best performers. I know that isn't a universal truth, but it really works in Nomadland.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.