On the surface, Nomadland is a deeply empathetic and visually beautiful picture of nomadic life in America. Having originally been Frances’ McDormands’ idea that she went to Chloé Zhao with, the narrative follows ‘houseless’ Fern (Frances McDormand) on her journey following the loss of her livelihood and her husband, and then intertwines this with the stories of real non-acting nomads along the way. Although, I have to say it, and ‘it’ is that something about Nomadland does not sit right with me as a viewer. The more I think about Nomadland, the more I think of reasons why this would have been so much better as an artistically driven documentary than a star-studded weaving of real nomadic life with the picturesque images of Fern’s fictitious nomadic experience.
To start on the lighter note, Nomadland is undeniably beautiful, and Zhao has drove home a film-making style that employs realism; there is a clear narrative here, intertwined with real-life experiences of Linda May and Charlene Swankie, that is somewhat indistinguishable from the truth. Zhao’s interest in the rural American life of nomads cast adrift by late capitalism pours through as Fern’s journey takes her across the United States, with beautiful visual language accompanied by an almost absent, yet incredibly powerful score provided by Ludovico Einaudi. Zhao has definitely taken an adventurous and daring approach which I can respect her for; an approach that is probably going to win her and her peers a lot of awards too. I can greatly appreciate the nomadic way of life becoming more popular and more desirable in the order of chaos that is normal, tethered life. However, I cannot help but feel as though the non-actors here – our real nomads – have been done a disservice.
While I can appreciate the film at a surface level, it does not go much deeper than that because Nomadland takes a few liberties; a few too many for me to be able to overlook them and appreciate the film on a deeper level. Being based on Bruder’s 2017 novel, Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, I expected more of a statement from Zhao’s film adaptation; more specifically, Amazon get off way too easily here. Fern has no complaints about her work with Amazon and because the film acts as a character study, we see Bruder’s excruciating indignation regarding capitalist exploitation switched out for a rather mixed message about freedom and loss that downplays the issues with gig labour, Amazon’s scheme for retirees, and ultimately, the reality of the journeys that nomads are on. In Bruder’s book, Linda May sharply declares that she hates working with Amazon, and deems the company to be “the biggest slave owner in the world”. Yet, in all of her clarity on camera, these opinions are omitted during Nomadland, in favour of showing us more of Fern’s compassion and sorrow. Additionally, think back to Charlene Swankie and her terminal cancer; this was an invented plot device. Swankie herself has never had cancer, yet she does share (off-screen) that “my ex-husband died of brain cancer, so that made me emotional during filming. My character is 99% me. I am fiercely independent and seldom ever ask others to help me, so it was exceedingly difficult to act like I needed Fern’s help. That 1% was acting.” Again, Nomadland’s message of human experience becomes muddled here; if this is a picture centred on universal human experiences and emotions, then why are we not showing more of the true stories of these nomadic non-actors on screen? Why are we showing more images of Fern refusing help and housing?
Frances McDormand’s role here is one of the more subtle roles of her career and I will not downplay her compassion and empathy here, as it undoubtedly shows. However, by simply omitting the mistreatment and exploitation that is a part of so many nomads’ lives, the filmmakers here end up diminishing their issues and our final outcome disappoints overall. That being said, Zhao did not intend to make a political piece, and this is a picture that will bring comfort to many. Zhao told Indiewire that she wished to avoid politics: “I tried to focus on human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal – the loss of a loved one, searching for home.” With this in mind, and the politics of Amazon and gig work at the back of our minds, Nomadland can easily be interpreted in two ways: it is the story of a woman running from her losses after everything she knew had vanished; but it is also a story of so many Americans who feel disconnected from society and lost within their own lives. It is easy to find comfort in Nomadland to an extent, as its images of anxiety and unrest are something we are all familiar with right now, and its gestures of kindness and being at one with nature are beautiful gestures which we all need reminding of.
While I agree that not every new picture made needs to be explicitly political to drive home a message, I simply cannot understand why Nomadland casted real nomads in a drama about their experiences – high and low – to then intertwine a less-vulnerable and much more supported character that essentially diminishes the real human experiences of Linda, Swankie, Wells and many other nomads. Nomadland can have the fact that is it beautiful, and in areas it is incredibly touching, but the film feels like a missed opportunity more than anything – maybe that is the point – but it simply feels as if the filmmakers here have intertwined the likes of a fictitious narrative purely in an attempt to resonate with a wider audience, and of course, the Academy. Regardless of this, I stand by the fact that nomadic life and experience has been somewhat done a disservice in Nomadland; the portraits painted of our characters here (both real and fictional) are ones that are painted with empathy and respect, so I have no doubts that Zhao really intended to create a touching, but non-political, picture here. Yet, I think a more powerful picture could have been made out of the fact that with nomadic life, there is no driving into the sunset, and we owe more screen-time to the stories of nomads themselves and Bruder’s condemnation of late capitalism, than that of a picturesque horizon.