Nomadland review: a life changing journey


Searchlight Pictures

Frances McDormand (left) and Chloe Zhao (right) together on the set of Nomadland.

Hazel Booth, Online Editor

Chloe Zhao is a filmmaker whose debut film, “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” came out only six years ago, and yet, her most recent film, “Nomadland” is a front runner in this year’s Academy Awards discussion. It recently took home four awards at the 2021 Golden Globe Awards. The film, which Zhao wrote (adapted from a book of the same name by Jessica Bruder), directed and edited, stars Frances McDormand as its wandering protagonist. “Nomadland” has had months for hype to build, with it first being shown at various film festivals in the fall of 2020. These showings inevitably led to glowing reviews from various news outlets and film critics, but the movie was not available to the vast majority of people until it came to Hulu (and to select theaters) on Feb. 19 this year. 

Curious about the film that has been so highly acclaimed by so many, I watched it. Does it deserve the hype? It absolutely does. It met and surpassed every expectation I had. What this does not mean, though, is that it will be everyone’s cup of tea. This is not a fast-paced movie. It is often quiet (though the beautiful score from Ludovico Einaudi makes these quiet moments auditorily breathtaking), and the performances are understated. Among the understatedly beautiful performances, McDormand’s is undoubtedly the best, taking center stage and driving the movie (quite literally, her character, Fern’s van takes her near everywhere). Fern has a backstory of which we begin the film knowing only the barebones. She’s a woman in her 60s displaced by the closing of a rural mine and loss of her husband, set off to eke out a living and find some meaning in life in the wake of such massive loss.

 Fern is far from the standard Hollywood protagonist and the modern ideal of the nomad. The film industry often favors younger stars, especially younger women, yet McDormand, who is 63, just won Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture at the Golden Globes. McDormand has won two Oscars previously and is a near lock to be at least nominated for the 2021 edition of the awards show. McDormand has upset the norms of not only Hollywood and the American film industry but the modern ‘nomad’ culture. The modern ‘nomad’ culture is filled to the brim with young people travelling the world, working easy online jobs and living in luxury. Fern doesn’t check any of those boxes, yet she is just as much of a nomad as all those who live comfortably while they trot across the world in internet cafes. Fern challenges any and all preconceived notions of what being a nomad means throughout her journey. 

Fern’s journey is a beautiful one, set against the backdrop of awe-inspiring natural landscapes as she learns what it means to be free and untethered. In her journey, she finds her people among the ranks of those who’ve spurred the sedentary life in favor of freedom. While “Nomadland” follows Fern, any of the nomads she meets and bonds with across her travels could have deservedly been the star of their own movie. The people who teach Fern what it means to be a nomad and help her realize what she’s looking for in her wandering journey are eminently likeable, sympathetic and deeply human. While Zhao’s script is absolutely stellar, it cannot take all the credit for the unparalleled humanity of the nomads Fern meets along the way. Some of these nomads are in fact real people. This means some of them are true nomads who agreed to play themselves in “Nomadland” to lend a unique authenticity to Zhao’s film. When watching the movie, try to guess who’s a real person playing themselves. Seeing the credits in the end may surprise you (and no cheating! Don’t look up the cast before you watch the movie—you’ll spoil a wonderful moment of satisfaction or surprise in watching the credits).

“Nomadland” does a thorough and visually amazing job exploring how exactly one can be free in this day and age, but that freedom does not exist without drawback or contrasting imprisonment. Fern, as do many of her fellow nomads, needs to take low-paying and flexible gig jobs to subsidize her nomadic lifestyle. Throughout the film, we follow Fern as she takes multiple low-paying temporary jobs at places such as Amazon, a company infamous for how poorly they treat their workers. This is one area where the film falters in its authenticity; while the film certainly criticizes capitalism as a wasteful ideology that lets down those who need it and restrains their freedom to move, none of the gig jobs Fern works are presented as anything more than boring inconveniences. In “Nomadland” the book, which is a nonfiction exploration of nomads in the American west, a character who Fern is loosely based on suffers injury while working at Amazon. Injuries are a common occurrence for other nomads who partake in the gig economy as well (there is a much longer and in detail article about this specific flaw from Vulture’s Wilfred Chan). 

According to Amazon’s brand usage guidelines, they “require advance review of creative materials” if an outside party wishes to use any Amazon copyrighted material (as “Nomadland” does, they use the official Amazon logo) and reserves the right to “reject, remove or request modifications” to any ads using copyrighted Amazon material. While “Nomadland” is not an Amazon ad, it is reasonable to assume Amazon reserves similar rights when it comes to any piece of media that uses their copyrights because, as they say themselves “the brand is one of our most valuable company assets.” This calls into question whether Zhao chose not to include any injuries in her adaptation to preserve her brand deal with Amazon.

Possible sanitation to preserve a corporation’s assent aside, “Nomadland” is a contemplative film with deep characters, breathtaking environmental backgrounds and a hypercompetent score from one of modern classical music’s best. “Nomadland,” now available on Hulu, is no simple Oscar bait; it is a masterpiece of cinema that deserves all the attention and acclaim it gets.