I always write about how great it is when I see a movie that sticks with me after I watch it for the first time. Only hours removed from leaving the theatre, I can already tell you that Nomadland has been on my mind ever since. Needless to say, this has been a strange year and the awards season has been extended longer than usual due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, whether this movie came out in February when it did, or in December during the peak of a traditional awards season, Nomadland deserves to be the clear-cut favorite for the best picture of the year.
Speaking of the pandemic, Nomadland hit the theaters at the perfect time. A somber but peaceful story about overcoming grief from both personal and economic loss is exactly what the world needs right now. Within the United States alone, there will be at least 500,000 families who have lost a loved one over the past year from Covid-19 that will specifically find this story incredibly timely and relatable of understanding what it means to feel lost and adrift with life due to a stable piece of your life suddenly being gone. As we all hopefully are beginning to finally turn the corner and head back towards a resemblance of the “normal” world we once knew, Nomadland, perhaps unintentionally, is the perfect shoulder to cry on and inspires us to embrace the changes to our world from both a micro and macro level.
I said unintentionally because at its core, I believe that Nomadland is actually a love story. Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is a loner due to the loss of her husband and finds herself unable to leave Empire, Nevada – the town where her husband worked at a sheetrock plant. When the plant closes down, the town is erased off the map due to the fact that basically everyone who lived there also worked for the plant that was shutting down. As the plant went, so did the town’s zipcode. Consequently, Fern becomes nomadic and travels around the open spaces of the American West, where she finds a tribe of fellow nomadic people who live off of the land and “off the grid.”
So where does the love story come in? Well, Fern, obviously still in love with her deceased husband, can’t let him go. She forbids herself from ever moving on to a new town or new lover because of the fact that Empire was their home. She grew to love the town as much as she loved him. Fern also grew to love her lifestyle with the nomadic tribe, who by the way were mostly all genuine nomads with the exception being McDormand’s co-star, David Strathairn.
This brings me to my next point – the beauty of this film is its organic simplicity. Nomadland plays like a well-done, in-depth documentary instead of a feature film. I feel bad even calling it a drama, because it felt so real. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Nomadland is the most genuine, organic movie I’ve ever seen. Nothing about this film felt scripted. The story really does an amazing job telling itself.
Still, Chloe Zhao, who also wrote the screenplay, did an amazing job bringing this story to the big screen. It’s hard to ever say a movie is better than the novel it originated from, but I’m pretty sure that Jessica Bruder, the story’s author, is proud of Zhao’s incredible film direction. I can’t imagine the book being any better than the superbly done film adapation.
Frances McDormand was the perfect actress to play the lead in this film. Her name and recognition were pushed aside in my mind because of her seamlessly stellar performance. When you watch this movie, you forget that you’re watching a Hollywood A-list actress. You feel like you really are watching Fern, and not Frances. She deserves to be the heavy favorite to take home the Best Actress Oscar this season. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Strathairn earn a Best Supporting Actor nod, either. His on-screen chemistry with McDormand was fulfilling and memorable.
Of course, the beauty in Nomadland’s story is also in its message to the audience. Ultimately, we all are nomadic in a sense. We all are put here on Earth for a purpose, and we go through life and all of its experiences, all of its ups-and-downs, to reach the climactic denouement of our own lives. I know that’s some pretty heavy stuff, and I honestly don’t expect everyone to get it. This is one of those types of films where there will be a part of the population that doesn’t find satisfaction in it because it isn’t fast-paced or cut-and-dry as other lesser quality films. Nomadland is a very cerebral movie that invites you to get emotionally attached and then forces you to relay its meaning to your own life.
From the cinematography to the impactful performances by McDormand, Strathairn, and the rest of the nomadic cast, to the beautiful music score, Nomadland will certainly be a force to be reckoned with on this season’s awards circuit – and deservedly so. There has never been anything like it up to this point. In the same way that The Office is credited for starting the trend for TV shows to tell their stories as if they were filmed live by reality show cameramen, Nomadland could become the trendsetter for filmmakers to tell their fictional stories in more of a documentarian style. I still am making my own yearly rounds of watching as many of the Oscar contenders as I can, but so far, Nomadland is atop the hill.
MATTER RATING: 9/10
OSCAR SCALE: 10/10 (Best Picture, Best Actress – Frances McDormand, Best Supporting Actor – David Strathairn, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score)
BY: CHRIS GUEST