Disclaimer: I was provided with access to Nomadland from a screener from Searchlight Pictures and a Blu-ray copy provided to me by Film Independent. Neither company has seen this review before my posting this review. Neither company had any editorial influences on the following review, nor did the fact that I received access to Nomadland sway my opinion of the film.
Nomadland has had a profound effect on my life. Jessica Bruder’s novel was one of my favorite books of 2017 (not that I read many books in 2017), introducing me to a world of nomads that society cast aside among one of the most significant recessions in American history. Bruder’s novel also helped me contextualize something I didn’t realize I was preparing for: living in an RV in Arkansas.
Yep, I live in an RV. On our way back from seeing my sister at the end of September of 2019, my mom and dad decided to move into an RV so that they could downsize and live off one income to pursue my mom and I’s business pursuits (although I hadn’t figured out my part yet). The ensuing weeks were full of Facebook Marketplace listings, looking at RVs, putting all nonessentials into big trash bags, buying new cell phones and cell phone service (who knew AT&T doesn’t work everywhere?), putting our RV on the lot (actually, we had someone else do that) and figuring out what RV life looked like, considering most of us lived in the cities or the suburbs, not rural Arkansas. The most camping we’ve ever done was at local State Parks like Roaring River or Bear Creek Lake, among one or two others that I’m currently forgetting.
So, when the film adaptation of Nomadland was announced, you can imagine my excitement. Finally, Jessica Bruder’s book was getting to see the light of day and was getting a huge studio like Searchlight Pictures behind it. Then, COVID hit, and theaters closed. Months went by, and there was no word on when the film was going to hit theaters or even a streaming service. Eventually, Searchlight announced that Nomadland would be making its way onto the festival circuit that year. Shortly after that, Nomadland was announced to be coming to IMAX-ready theaters on January 29th, 2021. On February 19th, Nomadland arrived in theaters as part of a wide theatrical release and Hulu.
Does Nomadland live up to the 2017 book by Jessica Bruder? Well, kind of? Nomadland isn’t really an adaptation of the 2017 book. Instead, it uses some of the real people from the book to create a new narrative, one less focused on a critique of the Amazon Camperforce program (which does make an appearance in the film, but without the critique) and more focused on the critique of a society that has driven millions of people to leave their homes and take up a new home: the road.
It’s this idea of a life of the road that, while not unfamiliar to anyone who has visited a state park in the past decade or so, I don’t think many people the people who this isn’t a camping trip for. It’s their way of life. The life of the nomad, especially the ones portrayed in Nomadland, is one of guessing where you’re constantly kept on your toes. You have to think about where you can park (if you have a long drive and need to sleep), how you’re going to prepare food, and what you need to do if something breaks.
What better director to portray this than Chloé Zhao? I haven’t personally seen all of her films, but I’ve seen The Rider (back-to-back with Lean on Pete, I think), Nomadland, and I will write up an email for her upcoming project in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals, as soon as the full trailer for the film releases. Her direction here could easily come off as romantic. The way she uses the “magic hour” to portray the inner beauty of the Earth is simply breathtaking. What’s even better is that this inner beauty is showcased in the characters within the film. The tight shots of Fran (Frances McDormand) reveal her feelings in a way that only Zhao (and her fantastic cinematographer Joshua James Richards) can capture.
Highlighting these moments of inner reflection and beauty is the score composed by Ludovico Einaudi. While the score is sadly reused compositions from Einaudi’s previous works, the score, like Zhao’s direction, is understated and only serves to supplement the cinematography and the acting by McDormand and the rest of the cast. Some may say that an understated score might not be worth listening to, but I think that argument is something that would track in something like Fast & the Furious. If Dom was talking about family for the 99999999000000th time and the score was this gentle, contemplative score, people might be confused as to what was going on there. However, in a film that is all about those quiet moments, I think this serves the film well. Plus, if I don’t notice it, that means I’m focusing on the acting and more technical aspects of the film rather than the score being blasted into my headphones.
Alright, I’ve put this off long enough. I should probably talk about the cast of Nomadland and the acting within. It only took 800+ words to get there, haha. As I previously mentioned, there are real people, namely Linda May (who is the primary focus of the 2017 book by Bruder), Swankie, and Bob Wells (creator of the YouTube channel CheapRVliving), in addition to Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. So, we get this beautifully blended cast of real people dredging up things from their past and actors who are attaching their dreams and memories onto their characters they play (so much so that there’s a deleted scene on the Blu-ray where a police officer responds knocks on Fran’s van and uses real-life details from McDormand’s life to identify her). In this respect, I don’t think I can call what is happening here as acting. Instead, the closest thing that comes to mind when describing the acting in this film is “memory acting.” To put it simply, I don’t look at the acting in Nomadland as “professional” acting or anything of that sort. The entire cast is using their memories and injecting that into the story. Plus, it feels like when we see two characters talk to one another, it feels as though they aren’t working off a script, instead of working off a general outline of things the characters needed to say in a scene to move the plot forward. Whatever you want to call it, I think the acting among the best I’ve seen in a film released this year, and McDormand deserved the Oscar, even if I would’ve preferred Mulligan.
Nomadland isn’t just a reflection of one of the darkest days in American history, it’s a reflection of the soul and what it needs in order to survive.
Nomadland is in theaters, streaming on Hulu in the US, available to rent or buy on the digital platform of your choice, and Blu-Ray.
Until next time!