Nomadland (Review)

Despite its poeticism and beauty, Nomad feels oddly empty. To an extent, this feel purposeful. After all, it is a film about nomadic lifestyles shot in a fascinatingly pseudo-documentary style that combines reality and fiction. In this film, we have the verité of non-actors alongside Frances McDormand, who is as excellent as always. Her performance is naturalistic enough to fit, and her talent also pushes her above the rest of the cast, creating a spellbinding lead performance that transcends the script.

This film is all about the titular nomadic community, living ‘houseless’ due to the impact of the recession and carving out a life on the edge of society. It is a life defined by rejection, a different rhythm of living not defined by social norms. This echoes the emptiness, as it fits in with the slow and meditative pace that takes you a step away from the rigid, purpose drive pressures of modern living. However, understanding a film is not the same as enjoying it. The hollowness goes beyond thematic reflection and cuts against the film’s emotional core. This is not a narrative work, it is about character and mood – and about presenting a reality to the viewer. However, the focus on naturalism is indelibly damaged at the start and attempts to restore this later on are tarnished by the filmmaking. This is a film that many will love, and I somewhat understand why, but it is also a film that lost me right at the start.

We begin with McDormand’s character working in an Amazon warehouse. The news is full of horror stories about this employer, and the company is inherently exploitative, yet Amazon gave the film permission to film on site (which tells you a lot). What follows is a very authorised and unsettling piece of propaganda. Obviously, the film later presents the idea of life outside of conventional employment as one of opportunity. Yet, as we continue with this ideology, we see that the presented problem is not specific jobs but jobs in general. And while this is convincing, this perhaps ignores a nuance: that jobs exist in a hierarchy. This lack of acknowledgement is also shown by the film, as it presents working for Amazon as overly positive. We see community spirit, a close knit working environment and the film goes out of its way to compliment the pay (fundamentally, this is a solvable issue. When so many films have characters use fake Facebooks and fake Googles, using a fictional ocmpany would have alleviated much of the film’s discomfort). The issue Nomadland wants to point out is more ‘the man’ or work in general, which is widely agreeable but only because it is so vague. It presents an alternative without ever really touching on the exploitation that makes this alternative the way forward, and therefore ends up as some liberal fantasy rather than a strong, or radical, political work.

The thing is, Amazon is a problem. We know their working conditions are a problem and by generalising the issue in the way Nomadland does – subtextually, but it still does it – we have an amount of erasure. Here, Amazon is one good job among many and would be a good one to keep. The problem is a rigidity and by keeping the critique broad, Nomadland becomes less impactful – or more voyeuristic. It is a well meaning and observational film but this observation carries an inherent sense of distance. Though, beyond this is a central hypocrisy, in which the film relies solely on a sense of reality but ruins that in the first ten minutes. By starting full of company placement and with a sanitised portrait, the film establishes falsity, yet asks the viewer later to view the film as reality. The same distancing effect is also true of shots at the very start that directly allude to Fargo: we have McDormand in snow, vague but resonant, but then we have a fence and a camera angle (that is just shown for no mandatory reason) that screams Fargo treasure. And while this is obviously only very slight, it is the kind of cine-literate touch that adds to most film but detracts from a work aiming at reality. Later on, we have a song played on the soundtrack that is famously in the Big Lebowski and, well, it is alienating – no matter how pedantic this sounds.

Quite simply, though, you cannot show Amazon the way you do – so obviously falsified – and then rely on a sense of reality throughout the rest of the film. There is a bond of trust that cinema has with the viewer, and Nomadland breaks this. I write this as a person who still, very guiltily, uses Amazon – for the terrible excuse of convenience (though I use other services first). And films like Nomadland are why I do this. Films that, bit by bit, present the company as innocuous, or fine, or one problem amongst any. This makes the film quite a sinister piece of propaganda and deeply unsettling in the wrong ways. To be honest, and mileage will vary very much, it was not a thing I could get over.

From this point onwards, all I saw was the artifice. The incidental storytelling suddenly just felt like limp poeticism. As if the film had nothing to say so just presented rather than spoke. I do like the approach the film takes, I love the focus on a community from their own perspective but I do feel like it is hampered by the wider content. Frances McDormand gives such a brilliant performance, she is able to display so much with so little and she is helped – as is the rest of the film – by completely stunning cinematography. The lighting is superb, the camera is constantly poetic and the result is really quite sublime. It is a genuinely meditative experience. And, you know what, this is lucky as the film is better with the brain turned off.

Artifice exists elsewhere though, and even within the positive elements. The soundtrack of the film is beautiful. It is minimalist and mournful but then knows how to build up orchestration while still feeling reserved and limited. As a cohesive work of tonal cinema, this is masterful. On that level, Chloe Zhao deserves all the praise she has received. This is a singular work and it is one where the word poetic can never leave the mind. However, the film very much knows this. A scene where McDormand just reads a very famous Shakespearean Sonnet feels like a step too far. It also links into the surface level politics, where the film goes for the obvious and the known – always for the tip of the ice berg and not what is beneath. This feels like such a clichéd and filmic moment, so contrived and constructed – and also links into canonical views that I find tiresome. It is telling that this film about a counter cultural society uses Shakespeare as a moment of beauty.

To return to the soundtrack though, and to return to artifice, the music also overtly guides emotion. Where the narrative structure, and visual language, is all about minimalism and a Spartan sensibility, the manipulative music stands out. The observational and unobtrusive is paired against melodies that dictate how the viewer should feel: ambivalent footage coupled with deeply mournful melodies in a way that seems manipulative. This returns us to the hollow politics and its slightly conservative, or traditionalist, sensibilities – and how the film’s poeticism seems to be a sanitisation more than a celebration.

Nomadland is a film that is easy to praise and hard to dislike. And yet I do not particularly like it, in spite of its overt strengths. It is so beautifully composed but in a way that feels false, and often manipulative. The undeniable beauty of the film is more in line with misrepresentation – or simplification – than it is with any kind of exploration or exposé. This is a wonderful work of cinema but that doesn’t mean it works or resonates, though it will for many. If you can look past the hurdles and stick to the poetic core, this film will astonish you. However, it is worth asking: what is this poetic core doing and what realities actually exist on screen, and at what cost?

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