Nomadland (2020)
February 19, 2021 10:12 PM - Subscribe

A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the Western United States after losing everything in the Great Recession, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
posted by ilikemefi (26 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed it. It's a love letter to the mine closing in Empire, NV in a way. I've both lived in my van and also spent two months out of the year for a decade right near there working Burning Man, so maybe it's just one of those quiet movies made for me.

I'm pretty sure the old guy at the storage unit was the actual owner of it. I've stored a trailer there and met him once, you can see his house across the road from the unit she's at in the movie. There's a shot at the end where she's going back to Empire, except she's driven past it and is at the train tracks at the bend in Gerlach. But that would make sense because there'd be Bruno's or the Miner's Club open, and she could use a phone to call the owner of the storage unit from there. Once I rode out of Gerlach at the beginning of October and there was snow on the peaks and that final shot of the movie with the low clouds was just about how it was. Though that shot, I'm certain, is her driving to back to Gerlach. (I've seen that very view many times always at a different time of the year.)

Also the short scene in the walmart at the beginning of the film, I think that would be the one off the back way into Reno where you take a right at Pyramid lake. It was always the preferred way for me to head into Reno as it's quieter, but a little longer. But yeah, when she runs into her former student, that's the shirt for the K-12 school out there, which I believe is closed now. I think the mine employed a couple hundred people, and Gerlach had about 350 people living there around 2011, but now there's only about 125 or so, if that.

Also liked how you could tell where she was in the country by the landscape. To see the cactus and know she's in Arizona because it doesn't quite look that way in Nevada. Or I'm kinda sure the ghost town she walks into is off in California north on the 447 towards Cederville. And when you see the giant fallen redwood you know just where she's at. (That house in northern California! Horses! Expensive!)

This movie made me miss those big sunsets living out west. Not so much the cold living in a van in winter. Not a movie for everyone, but I loved it.
posted by Catblack at 9:52 AM on February 20, 2021 [23 favorites]

When I first heard about the movie, I was super stoked about the concept and McDermond and it definitely doesn't disappoint.

It's gorgeous at times and oozes authenticity.

But ouchouchouch, it hit a little close to heart. Though it does highlight the joy that's still possible, to be found with other people. Reminds me of the quote from the 'Callahan' series by Spider Robinson, "Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy."

Loved Strathairn in 'The Expanse' as Ashford; I'm definitely going to have to look into more of his work.
posted by porpoise at 2:50 PM on February 20, 2021

This managed to be uplifting and depressing at the same time. The performances are all fantastic, both from the professional actors and non-actors. They're all so intimate and humane that there's no divide between the pro and amateur performances.

Loved Strathairn in 'The Expanse' as Ashford; I'm definitely going to have to look into more of his work.

Definitely check out Passion Fish. Outstanding performances all around, and a great soundtrack.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 5:37 PM on February 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

This is really one of the most remarkable pieces of filmmaking I've seen in a long time. It blurs the lines between fact and fiction and just settles on "truth." Frances McDormand is incredible here but I don't think she's acting so much as she's just existing. It's so beautiful.

I know Linda May and Swankie were real people, as is Bob Wells. I love that about this movie. It's giving these people a voice and dignity. There's no judgment as to why these people have picked this life, but it's not romanticizing it either.

I know this has been marketed as some kind of prestige Oscar-bait. It's so much more complicated than that but I also feel like if that gets people watch it, I'm OK with it. I thought I'd like this but I like it so much more than I expected.

Chloé Zhao directed the MCU Eternals and I'm just kind of like, give her all the money. Give her all the money to go make more beautiful movies like this.
posted by edencosmic at 7:01 PM on February 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

I read the book a while back and I recommend it really strongly. It’s nonfiction and there’s much more of an editorial voice which I kind of missed in the movie tbh. There’s a lot of information about that Amazon program and about Empire and just a general ton of information about nomads, about who is living on the road and why. It’s very different than the movie.

But the movie is beautiful. I lived in my tiny camper for 7 months and traveled around the country; my greatest regret is not going to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in 2018 when I so easily could have. It would have meant backtracking though and I was going forward, ever forward. I loved seeing places in the movie where I too had been.

I really liked the movie but I have so many conflicting thoughts. It struck me as so sad but it was beautiful too. The book lays out the economic realities in much starker tones: most people living this life do not choose it, exactly. They don’t have Northern California mansions waiting for them - that was the one part that rang a little false for me.

So many thoughts! Did anyone else feel as if the colors were really faded / muted? I couldn’t figure out if that was a deliberate aesthetic - it kind of made sense - or just a random chance from Hulu and my TV.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:56 PM on February 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

Yes, the colour palette was mostly cooler. It might be general colour de-saturation? For a bleakness effect as a signal for, possibly, cognitive clinical depression.

I felt that film grain was manipulated for similar purposes (either in post, or in choice of camera- or film- type/ lighting).
posted by porpoise at 12:51 AM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

This was so well acted and directed.
At every turn when the characterisation of Fern and others could have veered towards maudlin or heavy handed thematising of home-free people, Zhao reined in any sense of emblematic treatment.

In a very natural way in dialogue, the filmic language as it ranges across faces, rituals, van equipment, domestic spaces, warehouses, the kitchens of Wall Drug cafeterias, the toilet blocks of Badlands etc, the towering presence of nature’s beauty (and the economy it provides to seasonal workers) vignettes are so artfully constructed yet seem so unvarnished.

I really liked that the glimpses into Fern’s histories - with family, work and marriage - gave her a dignity and strength to the choices she made to live how she does. Even though the film shows that help is offered with permanent shelter and connection to similarly valued people, her choice not to stay is one we are ushered to feel is in tune with all we have seen of her life and history.

I saw this film a few weeks ago and it has stayed in my mind so much since. I’m Western Australian but spend a lot of time in the film’s locations (my partner is American) and it was just such a beautiful film in all its sensory presentation and development of character. McDormand was a fine choice to represent Fern and the supporting cast also excellent.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:20 AM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

We watched this last night. My wife did not enjoy it, she found it depressing. I read the book last year, so I knew what I was getting into, although the movie is very different from the book. The book is more of a journalistic effort, whereas the movie really blurred the line between documentary and movie in a really compelling way.
posted by COD at 6:50 AM on February 28, 2021

I really love this, it was such a beautiful movie, beautifully scored, quiet and peaceful, moving, sad yet joyful.
posted by ellieBOA at 3:10 AM on March 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Nice interviews with Linda May and Bob Wells at Vulture.
posted by ellieBOA at 3:21 AM on March 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I loved this movie. Frances McDormand's performance is pitch-perfect, utterly without vanity and completely believable. I loved the way the real nomads were given so much respect and that there was no judgement about the choices people made.

I really hoped in the closing shot that the van was headed back to where Fern spent Thanksgiving (trying not to give any spoilers away), but I suspect not ...
posted by essexjan at 6:50 AM on March 7, 2021

Just watched it and just loved it. McDormand is always good but this is really a career topper for her. I love how much she can do with so little; she can communicate volumes just sitting on a stoop smoking a cigarette.

Zhou is amazing; she produced, wrote, directed and edited this film while at the same time doing pre-production for the Marvel film. I really need to go back and watch The Rider.
posted by octothorpe at 6:27 PM on March 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I just finished watching this, and I know it's going to stay with me for a long time. What an incredible, loving, beautiful film.
I liked that everyone in it is alone together. They are single by choice or necessity, but they are interlinked over and over again; something that means so much to me right now.
posted by kalimac at 8:22 PM on March 13, 2021 [3 favorites]

I was moved by this in a way I haven’t been in years. The direction, the performances. Oscars are kinda dumb but man does this deserve some.

Also the sound design was terrific throughout — cuts on every shot when she wanted a documentary feel, but also atmospheric and deliberate when needed (the crunching underfoot as she walks through her abandoned house at the end stands out, as does the rain at Dave’s son’s house)

Just outstanding.
posted by condour75 at 8:03 PM on March 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

I just watched this last night and loved it. I can't recall a recent movie getting this kind of mainstream attention that confronts poverty so directly. Somebody else in another discussion forum said, and I agree, that the film steers very expertly between the two most obvious ways to get the story wrong: it does not idealize the lifestyle, nor does it wallow in miserablism. The exact line was, "It's not Jack Kerouac, but it isn't Upton Sinclair, either."

I was really struck by the close-up examination of a true counter-culture made up almost exclusively of elderly people. And I was profoundly moved by Swakie's speech; when she described the moments that meant the most to her from her life, it was like all of the age dropped away from her face. I've never seen anything quite like it.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:32 AM on March 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Loved this so, so much and can't wait to watch Chloé Zhao's previous works (both also non-actors, playing themselves). There's a real ethics and morality to the film - not just in it's content but in it's process.

I have some questions I'd be interested to see explored in writing: there's a resistance to political ideology here. It allowed them in the door to shoot at Amazon I suppose. But, while politics is not the only lens for framing this story, neoliberalism, de-industrialization, undermining of family, and a lack of safety net for elders all have political causes. Still, I found it moving to see a story with this human being at it's center - not a specific message but her internal process. I can't think of a more feminist movie I've seen recently. The respect with which it showed these women was profound.

Swankie's monologue was the heart of the film and one of the most beautiful and moving I can recall.
posted by latkes at 5:39 PM on March 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Ooof this film was rough. I enjoyed it! But I was going in thinking it'd be more upbeat. Nothing wrong with what it is though and it is beautifully made. Having real folks in the film playing fictionalized versions of themselves worked very well; it didn't feel exploitative at all, just honest and all the more meaningful for it.

It's amazing to me that a non-American filmmaker could make a movie that feels so authentically American. It looks like she's been in the US 20 years now, it's plenty of time to absorb the culture and language, but still it felt very intimately of our country. Maybe with a bit of distance; there's a way her shot framing and script uses the romantic mythology of the American West but to a totally different purpose than the Manifest Destiny grandeur of so much American film. My video player suggested I watch Giant after this which.. whew.

I could have sworn one of the blurbs I read characterized this as a "modern Western", a movie in the vein of Unforgiven or True Grit or No Country for Old Men. That's a bit of a stretch since Nomadland doesn't have the narrative structure, no gun-toting enemies to confront. The enemy in Nomadland is just the grind of life, the heartlessness of the American economy. But the film uses a lot of other Western movie tropes. The landscape, the towns, the quirky townsfolk. The austere empty emotional journey of the hero alienated from ordinary life. I like the overlap.
posted by Nelson at 7:34 AM on March 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Poor wandering ones":
An apology, or if you prefer a warning: this is perhaps less on the order of a review than it is a rant. The thing is, I found Nomadland to be a completely repulsive movie, cloying when it works and actively pernicious when it doesn't, and simply having to choke it down was galling enough; to do so while hearing it get praised from nearly all corners as a sensitive, rich masterpiece of humanity has driven me as close as I've come in the 15-years-and-change I've been doing this to finally just give up writing about movies, or at least movies made any more recently than the 1940s. Bad enough that smug pandering bullshit like this gets made; for it to be hailed as the salvation of cinema only really tells me that cinema is dead, dead, dead, and it's never coming back.

We have in front of us 108 minutes of poverty tourism, plain and simple, an offer to allow people who do not have the foggiest clue what "being poor" means or looks like, to join with Frances McDormand as she looks with a quietly sad smile and gently nods her head at the sad but heartlifting tales of people who are doing what they can to find meaning in wandering the western United States as modern-day nomads, left behind by the merciless economy but persevering. There is maybe something that can be done with this, as I suspect it was perhaps done in the film's source material, Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It would require, for a start, ruthlessly jettisoning all of the sentimentality that inexplicably overpraised director-for-hire Chloé Zhao has allowed to overwhelm the movie like a cancer. The film's thesis, in its first half, before it suddenly reveals that it's been telling a different story the whole time than it claimed it was telling, is that these nomads (virtually all of them played by actual people who do in fact live a nomadic lifestyle, often brought on by poverty and economic collapse; in some cases, they didn't even realise until afterwards that they were being filmed for a narrative movie and that McDormand was a professional actor) may be materially poor, but they are rich in spirit and in a love of the boundless promise of the American frontier, reborn in the 21st Century as a place of natural beauty and libertarian openness and promise that as long as you have determination and a lovingly battered RV, you can still live a version of the American dream.

This is fucking obscene.

posted by sapagan at 10:54 PM on April 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Anyone who watched that movie and came away thinking it was an endorsement of "a version of the American dream" must have watched a different movie than me.

I've been trying to figure out how to explain this movie and lately I've been comparing it to Grapes of Wrath. Only at the end of the journey instead of the hope of a new life in California, there's nothing but increasing poverty and death. For the filmmaker to find some dignity and positivity for the people in the middle of that bleakness is the film's strength, not its weakness.
posted by Nelson at 8:51 AM on April 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

We had to wait soooo long to see this film, tantalized by all the awards it was winning in Europe last summer, that the joke was that we'd get the vaccine before we finally got a chance to see Nomadland. But after all that, it was disappointing. The film is is indeed beautifully shot and moving, but it peaks halfway through - Swankie's scene - and then meanders to a predictable, suspect conclusion. McDormand, with her charisma and her Brkenstocks and Eileen Fisher sack dresses, seems to be basically playing herself (see e.g. Olive Kitteridge to see her act), and the work we see her doing is ludicrous: working at the Amazon 'Fulfillment Center' is apparently a blast with 'great pay' and plenty of time to mosey around and go to the washroom; at the farm casually tossing a few sugar beets around. For a film that purports to show the grim toil of life for America's dispossessed it's curious that the brutal nature of these jobs is so sugar-coated; Fern's obviously wealthy family raises other questions. Leave No Trace a couple of years ago was a far more credible, powerful and eviscerating film about alienation and searching in the American west, but sadly got zero attention or Oscar buzz.
posted by Flashman at 2:00 PM on April 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Please read the book, it's really, really good and will give so much context.
posted by theora55 at 4:11 PM on April 29, 2021

The book lays out the economic realities in much starker tones: most people living this life do not choose it, exactly. They don’t have Northern California mansions waiting for them - that was the one part that rang a little false for me.

Yes, for much of the movie you think Fern's situation is one of sheer necessity, which is bone-chilling. But it turns out she has a couple of alternatives, not entirely awful, that she rejects out of unsettledness of spirit and inability to accept the strictures of domestic life. Don't get me wrong, it's a mindset I'm deeply sympathetic to, but a film about that is not the same as a film about being truly marginal.
posted by praemunire at 9:46 PM on May 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

For a film that purports to show the grim toil of life for America's dispossessed it's curious that the brutal nature of these jobs is so sugar-coated

This is a little strange to me. We literally see her scrubbing shit off toilets and so caked in beet dust that when she takes a shower it looks like she's bleeding from her skull.
posted by praemunire at 9:47 PM on May 1, 2021

Yeah, there was a shot of Fern leaning to scrape the far end of the grill at Wall Drug that just ached.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 5:11 PM on May 2, 2021

The soundtrack to this was incredible. There was one point where the score was woven in with diegetic music and it just sounded so lush and amazing. I kept being blown away by it. So much of the score had hints of other songs, it was nostalgic but not. The effect was eerie, like a half forgotten but important thing.

Also the way the symbols and scripts played with timescales. Everything about the nomadland was expansive, spanning centuries. The rocks, sequoias, light from Jupiter. But the ones in houses were on a much shorter timescale. There were babies and holidays and decisions to be made. It was such a contrast and felt really claustrophobic compared to the endless landscapes and slower pace.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:01 PM on June 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

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