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New York Film Festival Review: In Bleak but Beautiful “Nomadland,” America Dreams of Better Times

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 29th, 2020

After first playing at Telluride, Toronto and Venice, Nomadland is now currently part of the New York Film Festival‘s Main Slate. That festival runs until October 11. The film is currently slated for a December 4 release from Searchlight Pictures.

Film poster: “Nomadland”

Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.

With her two previous features, The Rider and Songs My Brother Taught Me, Chinese director Chloé Zhao demonstrated not only a strong affinity for the American West, but also a deep understanding of its harsh realities. Now, with Nomadland, a fictional narrative based on the eponymous 2017 nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, she takes this nation’s wide-open spaces and examines both their charm and their loneliness, stunning visuals embedded in a tale of economic hardship. Her characters, aging blue-collar workers, struggle in the fraught post-2008 financial landscape that makes retirement, not to mention home ownership, a distant fantasy. Nomads all, they wander the roads either in vans retrofitted to be simultaneous sleeping stations, or towing campers, sometimes part of migratory caravans of similar souls, sometimes on their own. Often bleak, occasionally heartwarming, and always poignant, Nomadland speaks not only to our time, but to the lost promise of the past.

Though Zhao includes non-actors among the cast, many of them subjects of Bruder’s book (which I haven’t read) – including Linda May and Bob Wells, among others – her central protagonist, Fern, is played by the great Frances McDormand (Promised Land). As the film begins, Fern is at more than a crossroads, recently widowed and now homeless, the company town where she and her husband long lived no longer incorporated. An opening title card explains how United States Gypsum Corporation shut down in 2011, after 88 years of operation, because of reduced demand for the sheetrock it produced, and that soon thereafter, Empire, Nevada, where it had been located, not only effectively lost its entire population, but also its zip code (all of which happened in real life). Gone. Vanished. No more. And along with it Fern’s hopes, dreams and marriage, her husband succumbing to a heart attack before long.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

When we meet Fern, she is doing seasonal (Christmas) work for an Amazon warehouse in northern Nevada, but once that is done, with the bitter cold on top of the region and little money to pay for heat at the trailer park, she heads south, following the advice of her friend Linda May, to Arizona, where a man named Bob Wells gathers nomads like himself and Linda, and now Fern, for an annual “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.” It’s still winter, but at least it’s warmer down there, so not only does Fern find company, but she also doesn’t die of hypothermia (always a good thing). Furthermore, she discovers a vocation, realizing that there are others like her, of similar age and financial straits, who make it work, somehow. And she meets Dave (David Strathairn, Fast Color), a pleasant fellow who takes quite an interest in her, though that attraction is not entirely reciprocated.

What follows is a gentle meditation on very ungentle problems. Though our characters are game for whatever life throws at them, and if getting older at least still full of energy and skill, they have no choice but to work. Zhao photographs the scenery with her usual exceptional compositions, but this only serves to highlight the existential dread that lies below the surface beauty. At one point, when Fern’s van breaks down, the expensive repair threatens to derail the path she has now chosen. Still, as the bittersweet ending reveals, the freedom to make one’s own way is worth whatever price one has to pay, at least for Fern. It’s just too bad that, for so many, such liberty comes at such a steep cost. See you down the road, as the nomads say.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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