December 14, 2020

Nomadland Review

Nomadland is a curious beast; a sobering look at the ramifications of an ageing, expanding workforce in the gig economy following the 2008 recession, critical of the corporations who have forced people into this position, while also feeling at first glance like it’s pulling some of its punches. At least, that’s how this writer interpreted it on first viewing, so blinded by a depiction of an Amazon warehouse wildly different than the horror stories we’ve heard, and offhanded references to the company paying “good money”, it appeared like a corporate critique a company like Disney would have no problem including in a film they’re distributing. Naturally, a second viewing unveiled a clear sadness that had somehow been disregarded at first glance – that corporations may afford stable work, but in the gig economy, that doesn’t mean anything. You can still be homeless and shifting between industries in the pursuit of staying afloat for another month.

Photo © Searchlight Pictures

Director Chloe Zhao’s film, loosely adapted from the 2017 non fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder, aims to encapsulate the crisis facing millions of workers through one character study. Her film focuses on Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixty something woman who lost her factory job years earlier, who decides to adapt the nomad lifestyle following the death of her husband. Of course, life on the road is a far different reality from the romantic ideal, and Zhao’s film captures this like few others; excursions to the Grand Canyon and other tourist attractions are complemented by brief stints in insecure employment, from refuse work to restaurant kitchens.

Photo © Searchlight Pictures

This is largely where the film stumbles. Although blunt in its ideas, fiercely critical of a system that has forced millions into this position, Zhao’s film still possesses an innate romanticism of America which sits awkwardly next to the grimly realist tale of insecure employment. It goes without saying that the film wouldn’t be as effective if it didn’t lay out the romantic appeal of life on the road in America, where you can just park up and explore the Grand Canyon or any other scenic destination at the tip of a hat, and that this acts as clear justification as to why so many pack up and transplant their entire lives into a van. But it never quite finds the ideal balance between this misty eyed view of the American west and the harsher truths of modern nomad life.

Which is something of a minor shame, as there is much in Nomadland that does feel accurately observed, not least in how it captures forging friendships with colleagues to help dull the agony of working in a mind-numbing minimum wage job. And although the aforementioned depiction of the Amazon warehouse may feel watered down (albeit still captured with a clinical eye by cinematographer Joshua James Richards), this feels like a necessary appeasement to a mega corporation to show how the unstable employment they offer has wrecked many lives. It may not have been appreciated by this writer on first viewing, but the film would not pack as hard a punch if they made up a name of a pseudo-Amazon corporation, inadvertently deflecting their share of the blame for this employment crisis to a fictitious company.

Photo © Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland is a deeply moving film, anchored by a commanding Frances McDormand performance, exquisitely breathing life into a character largely left vague beyond the broad strokes of backstory in Zhao’s screenplay through expression alone. However, its partial romanticisation of life on the road doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with a more sobering character study and wider political commentary, never quite feeling the sum of its commendable parts as a result. 

Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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BFI London Film Festival, Film, Film events and festivals, London Film Festival

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