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Nomadland Gives Intimate, If Romanticized, View Of Life On The Open Road

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

Last week, Nomadland took home the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture, and director Chloe Zhao won Best Director. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, Nomadland has a deep-seated grip on the fundamental gaps between American dreams and realities.

The guts of Nomadland live in the gaunt, unadorned face of actor Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, a woman stripped down to the basics, widowed after the mine in Nevada closed and her miner husband died.

With no roots and little money, Fern heads off into the open American West in her white van. Fern takes temporary jobs — in the kitchen at Wall Drug, as a campground host, at an enormous Amazon fulfillment center. She joins a world of people shoved out of their houses by a changing country and economy that make their jobs and families disappear.

These nomads call themselves houseless. Their homes are vans and campers, but they're without place or firm human connections. The friendships they make as they drive around, sometimes camping in groups, are temporary and tentative. Fern feels deeply for other people. She's a powerful hugger, but the hugs come when people leave, and Fern shows no regret. Yet conversations can take surprising turns into intimacy.

As she cut Swankie's hair, Fern talks about her husband dying.

“I don't want to put my thumb down on that morphine drip just a little bit longer so I could let him go. Maybe I should have tried harder so he could have gone sooner without all that pain."

"Or maybe he wouldn't have wanted that. Maybe he was trying to stay with you as long as he could. I'm sure you took good care of him, Fern.

"I did.”

Director Chloe Zhao gets good performances from actors like Swankie with no experience. These actual nomads give Nomadland the taste of authenticity and your heart goes to them. Along with Fern, Nomadland visits astounding scenery — the badlands of South Dakota, the immense basin and range landscape of Nevada, and the huge expanses of Western Prairie. Zhao films with a sense of wonder at the scale and accents these vast scenes with a highway or a train crossing the width of the screen.

Overall, though, Nomadland struggles between its fiction and that authenticity. For all the actuality of nomad actors, the bleak sterility of life at small truck stops and grocery stores, and the ecstatic scenery, the film plays some false, romanticized notes. It's hard to believe that nomad life is this idyllic. No one gets angry. No one seems crazy. No one chose a gun. There are no fights. Characters are consistently kind and generous. They share, and even if they're blunt, they say please and thank you.

Fern's friend Dave, longtime pro actor David Strathern, warns her about walking alone at night. But his caution comes out of nowhere because there's not a threatening moment in the picture. When Dave gets sick, a quick cut to a big medical center shows Dave looking well and happy in a private room after intestinal surgery. No waiting in the emergency room — maybe he has good health insurance. Characters have support systems. Dave and Fern rely on sisters and brothers. Good for them. They need support, but it doesn't spell complete independence.

Yet, as a visual poem about loneliness and about the tumble of conflicts between openness, free roaming and despair, Nomadland can be extraordinary. Some of our fundamental books — Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn or Invisible Man — displayed the betrayals in actual America.

It's amazing that this Chinese immigrant filmmaker understands all that. Zhao was 38. She was born in Beijing and came to the U.S. as a teenager. She has that newcomer's sense of wonder about the American West. Before Nomadland, she filmed Songs My Brother Taught Me on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and made The Rider, about an injured rodeo rider. Zhao's not naive. She sees that the grandeur of the American West contains compromises. Nomadland is an itchy film. It makes you scratch at it for a long time.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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