Directed by Chloe Zhao
Screenplay by Chloe Zhao, based upon the book by Jessica Bruder
Starring Frances McDormand Charlene Swankie, David Stathairn, Linda May, and Bob Wells
All through Oscar season 2021/2021 Nomadland was the film to beat, and the person probably receiving the lion’s share of the praise was Chloe Zhao. This is fair, given she wrote, edited, and directed the picture, as well as produced it. And, it’s in her typical visual style, which is lives in the same cinema space as Terrence Malick, and to a certain extent, David Lowry. In other words, her hands are all over the film and it feels like a personal statement from her. Or, at least of a piece with the rest of her filmography,
And yet, while she gets the praise, the truth is this film does not exist without Frances McDormand. It was she who found the book upon which the film is based and optioned the rights. It was she who got Chloe Zhao on board early, after seeing Zhao’s film, The Rider, and meeting her at the Independent Spirit Awards. It was she who apparently opened the doors to get into Amazon for filming, and it was on McDormand’s name that they were ultimately able to find the money for the movie. In some sense, while this is Zhao’s movie, it is also McDormand’s — she’s the one onscreen doing the work, and ultimately shaping the performances that are available.
And maybe this is the truth about Hollywood and filmmaking that the general public never really thinks about. Yes, while one person is ultimately credited as the director, the truth is everything is a collaborative medium. That while one person may ultimately exert total creative control over the project, they are only able to do that with what other people gave them. The finished product is ultimately the result of thousands of choices, big and small, so to give credit to just one person for a film feels like an unfair deprivation of the work of everybody else.
What’s it About?
Sometime around the time that her husband dies, the factory in the factory town where Fern (Frances McDormand) lives closes and the town is effectively deleted from the map. With the factory closed the people take off to find other jobs, leaving what is basically a ghost-town behind. Sure, there may still be people living there, because some people just won’t let go — there are still people living in Chernobyl — but there aren’t many. In the wake of this, Fern feels unmoored and takes to live as a nomad, living in her van and travelling about doing seasonal work in an Amazon fulfillment center, a potato farm, Wall Drug in South Dakota, and Quartzite, Arizona. Along the way she meets other nomads, hears their stories, and effectively becomes part of a community sort of lkiving under the radar, apart from the mainstream society we already know.
Of course the film is good, and I don’t mean that simply because it won Best Picture at the Oscars — lots of films win Best Picture without necessarily being good, and on some level the Oscar for Best Picture should never be taken as a statement on whether the film is good or not. Rather, it usually is an indication is the film is adequate.
But Nomadland is not merely adequate — it’s good, bordering on great — and might’ve been the top film for the 2020 Oscars, whether or not it won the top prize. But, because it won Best Picture in the year of Covid the discussion around the film will ultimately be about whether it won the award because it was deserving, or because it was just one of the few films to come out. Obviously, this is an unanswerable question because Oscar wins are as much about the film as they are about the time and place. About the film being the exact thing needed at the exact moment.
Think about it this way: The King’s Speech won Best Picture in 2010 in what seems like a walk: it won Picture, Director, and Actor. Along the way, it had to beat The Social Network. Moreover, The King’s Speech made money and made people feel good. A decade removed from that Oscar triumph there is probably nobody who would make a credible argument that The King’s Speech is better than The Social Network. While The King’s Speech played well in the moment, The Social Network has had the longer, more meaningful life. But the Oscars don’t measure longevity — they measure the moment. And in the moment The King’s Speech had the momentum.
So while we’ll never know what would’ve happened in any other year, in this year Nomadland proved to be the film the Oscars needed.
In some ways, though, Nomadland winning is as revolutionary as Parasite winning the year before. It is not the type of film the Academy ever honors — the Academy may have flirted with Malick-style films before, but they’ve never really won any Oscars. That semi-documentary, semi-improvisatory approach that seems part of his films is not what the Academy does. And yet, here it is. A Terrence Malick film made good. Or, the best version of a Terrence Malick film, devoid of all the whispery, philosophical nonsense he’s fallen into as of late, and more of the Badlands/Days of Heaven version of a Malick film.
What’s interesting about the film is that, even as it seems a little formless, and almost like a travelogue of the west, the film does have a point of view. Some would dispute that, because the films refuses to say big, grandstanding statements about the changing economy, but you’d be blind to watch it and miss the commentary on the state of the economy. While there is tension in Fern’s story over whether she’s forced into her drifter lifestyle, or chose it — at one point she says, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless” — there can be no doubts that others were forced into this lifestyle by an economy that left them behind.
In another year, Nomadland might be a nice also-ran, but in this year, it was the film that was needed.
And don’t forget 52 Before 62.