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Film Review: “Nomadland”

Written by: Victoria Alexander | March 7th, 2021

Film Poster: NOMADLAND
Film Poster: NOMADLAND

NOMADLAND’s star and producer is two-time Best Actress winner, Frances McDormand. She was given the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder and pursued Chloé Zhao, who then directed, wrote and edited the film. With a budget, as stated, of between $4-6 million, McDormand probably did sleep in her character’s van.

Zhao dazzled the film community with her 2017 film about a rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) who suffers a debilitating head injury and its effect and him and his family. All the cast were non-professional actors, with the exception of David Strathairn.  Zhao’s sudden trajectory gave her the cache to agree to direct Marvel’s big-budgeted film, THE ETERNALS. With Zhao’s intensely character-driven sensibilities and a small, hand-picked crew, how will she adapt to working for a goal-oriented, highly-structured, stock-driven corporation? Zhao will have to make major concessions and it will not be her vision solely on the screen.

It will be a fascinating collaboration. Will Zhao have any say in the production? Will she toe the line, take the notes and accept the cast given to her? Or will she be seduced by hair product contracts and glowing Vogue magazine profiles? Will Zhao’s people demand Annie Leibovitz as the photographer and a Dior couture gown?

However, THE ETERNALS was the prize after THE RIDER; what will happen once the acclaim and awards are handed out for NOMADLAND? Zhao has an interesting “foreign-laden” view of American life- ordinary people and their highly-constructed, alternative lifestyles fascinates her.

With THE RIDER, I learned about rodeo riders and how they train. With NOMADLANDS, I discovered an aspect of American life I never heard about-elderly people traveling around the country in vans and motor-homes taking odd jobs. This group are not “off-the-grid” folks. That’s another set of defiant Americans.

NOMADLAND’S Fern, is a middle-aged widow who leaves her home to travel around the American West In a van. She has discarded, gifted, or sold her meager possessions.

In 1997 McDormand won the Academy Award for Best Actress for FARGO and in 2017 she won her second Academy Award for Best Actress for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. A few other biographical notes are of interest in McDormand’s stellar career choices. She was adopted at one and a half years of age by a nurse and a Disciples of Christ pastor; both were originally from Canada.

Because her father specialized in restoring congregations, he frequently moved their family, and they lived in several small towns in Illinois, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, before settling in Monessen, Pennsylvania

McDormand has been married to director Joel Coen since 1984. In 1995, they adopted a son from Paraguay, Pedro McDormand Coen, when he was six months old. McDormand’s life surely belies that of the characters she has chosen to play. Her movie star life must have all the trappings of glamor, money, prestige, beauty and a fierce rein of competition and ruthlessness. But McDormand has steadfastly refused to let her Hollywood-death age (you are not bankable after 40), unstructured and unaltered face and body, crush her. Coen might have a “down-low” side piece, but he is married to one of the most fascinating actors working today. And she is way past 40.

But there must be something in McDormand’s psyche that she has not abandoned the soul of the ordinary characters she has chosen to play. (In articles I have read, McDormand, even as producer, did not have first class accommodations and actually worked at the jobs she had as Fern. Many of the non-professionals never knew she was an actress or a movie star. Well, Leonardo DiCaprio did win his Oscar by playing a  “bottom” with a bear and ate raw meat in THE REVENANT, another film supposedly without movie star perks.)

The film is set in Empire, Nevada. The local gypsum mine and the Sheetrock factory has closed. There is no other work and when Fern’s husband dies, she stays. Until the entire town is abandoned. Fran, still grieving her husband’s death, puts small possessions in a barely working van and goes on the road. But first, the remaining townspeople reach out to her and offer help. People are kind and offer her a place to stay.

Film Image: NOMADLAND
Film Image: NOMADLAND

Yet Fern does not want to be a burden on anyone and follows the path of other middle-aged “nomads” working odd jobs along the way. Apparently, there is a route a group of “nomads” travel and a semi-organized support system. While going along to the several nomad settlements, Fern meets up with David who apparently begins to really like her. He invites her to visit him when he visits his son and wife. She does but when he asks her to stay permanently (they has a little guest house), she declines.

I kept thinking these “nomads”, as expressed by Fern, are our modern-day yogi’s still living life in caves in the Himalayas. I climbed for hours to meet a young woman who had been denied becoming a yogi. So she set herself up in a cave with the only companion a lamb. She said the noise of the city below caused her great pain.

Fern’s entire existence is in her van and it like a yogi’s cave. It is her safety net. It represents everything she is. It’s womb-like interior, lovingly created by Fern, is her complete material world.

McDormand never allows us to feel sorry for Fern. There is never a trace of making us “privileged” people feel embarrassed or guilty. Yes, as economy has crippled so many Americans, Fern refuses the help of churches, social services and charity.

It is McDormand’s understanding of Fern and how she represents her inner resolve and emotions that make her performance the one to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. And it is impossible that any other actress would have sought this role. There are no “defining” Academy Award-winning scenes or emotional monologues. NOMADLAND was not crafted as an award-winning role with all the set pieces standard fare for actors seeking statues. 

Let’s hope Marvel gives Zhao the chance to give their characters an inner life and vulnerability.

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Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/. Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com. For a complete list of Victoria Alexander's movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes go to: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/victoria-alexander/movies. Victoria Alexander contributes to Films in Review (http://www.filmsinreview.com), Film Festival Today (http://filmfestivaltoday.com) and Las Vegas Informer (LVInformer.com).

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