If you were to read the recent reviews on “Nomadland,” you would think it’s the second coming of Christ. Is the movie good? Yes, it’s beautiful. Is it worth all the praise surrounding it? That isn’t very easy to answer in an absolute. “Nomadland” is a picture that’s resonating with everyone during an unprecedented period in history. Masses of people are dying. Folks’ houses are being transferred to those that make more money during a Darwinian survival of the most physically fit challenge. Are you older? Do you require medical assistance past what you can afford? Then die so you can reduce the surplus population.
Capitalism’s infrastructure has collapsed upon itself a little more with each passing day. The temptation to purchase an RV, totally separate from society providing some extreme social distance, is a concept that the ordinary American can embrace now more than ever. The United States’ mental health crisis is as catastrophic as its current death toll. This week alone, I wanted to give up on everything. The life of a nomad is alluring in a way I never thought would be possible. The resonance of “Nomadland” has come at the right place at the right time. In my opinion (since film is subjective overall), this is a 3 Guinness movie out of a full 4.
To go with a full four or even 3.5 is to give in to peer pressure. As a filmmaker, if your picture has struck the hearts of your audience profoundly, then you have accomplished your goal. Say “Nomadland” released in 2019. Would some of my colleagues be as over the hill for it as they are now? Would any Westerner? I would have to assume no since it wouldn’t be as emotionally relevant. Here’s why.
The film drags. It drags beyond the point of it being intentionally slow. Cruising past the critic’s terms of “a mediation on life” or “an astonishing reflection on Capitalism,” all of which is code for boring. I have no problem with boring movies. If I did, I sure wouldn’t be watching all of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federico Fellini, or Orson Welles’ films while stuck in quarantine. Boring is fine. It’s even appropriately done to a certain degree in this picture. Living life out in the country while packaging boxes at Amazon isn’t meant to be like Star Wars by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that Chloé Zhao is working on “Eternals” is a proven fact that you can simultaneously enjoy all sorts of films. So if anyone tries to cinephile shame you, screw ’em.
At a certain point, the movie’s message has been received far beyond its welcome. Fern (Frances McDormand) has lost her husband, her job; her entire existence is a statistic for Jeff Bezos. Shots following a subject from behind walking amongst a twilight sky are pretty to put on a reel but repetitive to put in a feature-length movie. I get it. They’re living peacefully alone beyond the painted fabric of corporatism. I think an hour and forty minutes of artsy shots that I could shoot on my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 4K with minimal color correction is about as subtle as a Michael Bay explosion. You’re artsy, that’s great. “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Wrestler” were made in that subito documentary style as well. After about fifteen minutes, the shots “Nomadland” is praised for drives itself into metaphorical overkill.
The cinematic techniques used are nothing more impressive than what everyone else has done. Pretty shots don’t make up for an entire film’s story. What happens with Fran’s psychosis that causes her to turn down something later on in the film? Does she struggle with the same choices she’s making when switching lifestyles? Fran doesn’t seem to evolve beyond anything we know about her from the beginning. She’s lost everything, she’s sad, she’s given up. If this sentiment sounds the same, imagine how I felt halfway through the film. Avoiding a narrative structure is perfectly fine. That break from the framework didn’t hold enough water for me.
Moments of profound beauty indeed take center stage here. The presentation of real-life nomads like Bob Wells is a magnificent usage of Italian neorealism, providing better performances than even some of the Oscar-class main cast. I’d be remiss to say that Mr. Welles doesn’t deserve an Academy Award nomination. Moments like Bob Welles’ monologue is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. When those moments pass, I was left with nothing but moments that didn’t mean much of anything past its surface value. I’m almost unequivocally confident that “Nomadland” will win the Oscar for 2021. Perhaps appropriately so since it’s a movie about people who were forgotten during an Oscars year that will probably be forgotten thanks to the disease for which I’m tired to bear its name anymore. I wish Ms. Zhao and everyone else in the film continued success on their road to the golden statue. I’m just a bit tired of hearing a noun, a verb, and how great “Nomadland” is.