Critic’s Notebook: How ‘Nomadland’ Became the Film of Our Moment

‘Nomadland,’ Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning ode to independence and isolation, became an anthem for the dysphoria of 2020. 

On Sunday, Chloé Zhao‘s elegiac neo-Western Nomadland made Oscar history, winning best picture, best director and best actress at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. It is the first directing victory for a non-white female filmmaker. Zhao is also the first woman to ever receive four nominations in a single year. Additionally, Frances McDormand won her third and fourth Oscars this year, for both starring in and producing the film. The last time a female-forward production fully entered the awards fray was in 2018, when Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird garnered five Oscar nominations, including best picture, director and actress. (Before that, you’d have to dig all the way back to 1994 to find another sweeping Oscar contender both about and directed by a woman — Jane Campion’s The Piano.)

Nomadland triumphed, however, not because of its groundbreaking representational significance, but because it elegantly captures the contradictions of contemporary American life. Our divisions in this nation have grown deeper over the last decade, as we’ve been torn asunder by economic collapse, a fading middle class, political upheaval, mass gun violence, racial injustice, a broken healthcare system and the ever-raging war between fact and fiction. A deadly pandemic was just the cherry on the dystopian sundae.

This past year, we were reminded that American-style individualism (in the insidious form of anti-maskers) could be our downfall, and yet widespread isolation was necessary for our very survival. Zhao’s work in Nomadland distills this flawed self-determinism. The film is ultimately too barbed to be healing, per se, but for every prick and scratch, every moment our heroine feels degraded or weaponizes her stubbornness, we also see her glory in fresh air, open skies and human connection. It is heart-shattering and life-affirming all at once.

In the film, 60-something widow Fern (Frances McDormand) lives a life of dichotomies. After devoting decades to her Nevada gypsum-mining town, the plant shutters in the wake of the Great Recession and she’s soon out of a job, a home and a community. Close to retirement age and with little in the way of savings, she wanders the American heartland seeking seasonal gig work in a second-hand van detailed inch-by-inch to serve as her full-time residence. As in her previous work in Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), Zhao blends drama and documentary, casting many of the real-life nomads who inspired her screenplay.

On the road, Fern is simultaneously trapped and free. She remains susceptible to the wear-and-tear she puts on both her vehicle driving through harsh terrain and her body as she takes on laborious short-term jobs, but she revels in the sovereignty to be able to pick up and go at a moment’s notice. She connects deeply with fellow aging wage-workers who have been forced into this itinerant lifestyle and teach her survival tactics, but their interactions are fleeting: No one ever stays in the same place long enough to cultivate true kinship. Fern encounters the hugeness of the American West — towering rock formations and vast lilac sunsets and dense verdant forests — from inside a space just under 250 cubic feet. She’s fiercely independent but also frighteningly vulnerable.

Oscar voters are not the same people they were 12 months ago, statistically or psychologically. After years of fielding #OscarsSoWhite criticism, last June the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences completed its diversification goal, doubling its female and non-white membership by inviting more than 800 additional film industry professionals to joins its ranks. In a year chock full of Hollywood idiosyncrasies, this accounts for at least some of 2021’s groundbreaking nominations that rewrite Oscar patterns we’ve become accustomed to — namely, the sudden preponderance of fresh faces over veteran stars and the rather sour flavor of this year’s film selection. Of course, there was no sci-fi epic, war-based dad movie, big bouncy musical or prestige superhero pic last year to rouse our spirits. But especially after witnessing the endless storms of 2020, AMPAS voters appeared to finally see America for its dark realities lurking in plain sight.

Nomadland is rich enough in textures and emotions to resonate broadly following such a dysphoric year. After months and months of sequestering at home, viewers may simply have longed for the film’s crisp breezes and lyrical twilights. Maybe even its nonconformist Easy Rider-inspired mythos. But on a deeper level, Zhao taps into fears for our future, the truths of isolation and the horrors of watching the life you built for yourself crumble in an instant. With millions of people out of work due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn, the film offers a sobering glimpse into a grim destiny for those without close family, retirement savings and other safety nets to see them through their later years.

The film, however, hasn’t been a slam dunk for all audiences, with many critics decrying it as Oscar-bait “poverty tourism” and “misery porn” made by a steel heiress and a Yale-educated movie star. Others believe it softens the routine suffering of seasonal Amazon warehouse workers. Adapted from journalist Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book about this real-life subculture of elderly wage workers, Nomadland probes what happens to ordinary working- and middle-class people who have been pushed out of the American economy but avoids visceral brutality that might alienate audiences. Bruder recounts injury after injury, but Fern only observes her friends’ physical declines, never experiencing them herself.

Instead, Fern is much more prone to humiliation than illness. Stationed in an empty lot one night, she enjoys a moment of repose and a slice of pizza until a strange man startles her, barking that she can’t park there overnight. “I’m leaving. I’m leaving,” she croaks. In the next sequence, she discovers her van won’t start. Mechanics recommend she simply take the $5,000 she would have to spend on repairs and put it toward a new vehicle. “No, no. Well, I can’t do that,” she stammers, rambling on before eventually blurting out the truth. “It’s my home,” she admits, looking as crushed as the shards of dust and gravel she crosses every day.

Ultimately, Nomadland is as much a rebuke against those who refuse help as it is an ode to independence. In the film’s final moments, we see Fern choose the solace of solitude over the comfort of starting over with her friend Dave (David Strathairn), abandoning the warmth of his son’s home to drive off into the cold rain and another labor cycle. Her detached autonomy isn’t an inspiration; it’s a cautionary tale.

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