Describe This Movie In One "Born to Run" Lyric:
BRUCE: The highway's jammed with broken heroes / On a last chance power drive
Brief Plot Synopsis: Out here in the perimeter, there are no ... actually, there still are stars.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 4 MK-15c space probes out of 5.
Better Tagline: "Capitalism Sucks: The Movie"
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Shortly after her husband's death, Fern (Frances McDormand) was laid off from her job at an Arizona gypsum plant. Working seasonally at Amazon and living out of her van, she's now just one of many eking out an existence on the fringes of America.
"Critical" Analysis: Chloé Zhao's adaptation of Jessica Bruder's 2017 look at older workers displaced by economic hardship and the Great Recession is a deliberate and meditative film, but it could easily have turned into a polemic about the disregard society holds for those cast aside by the engines of progress.
But if you've seen earlier efforts of hers, like The Rider, you know that isn't how Zhao rolls. Nomadland instead is almost lyrical, contrasting Fern's job (and car) struggles with the rugged beauty of the landscapes she travels, which are rendered breathtakingly by cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
The film's loose structure focuses on Fern, as Zhao (who wrote and directed) weaves stories of (mostly) quiet desperation around her. There's the woman with terminal cancer who vows not to spend any more time indoors, the Vietnam vet with PTSD who finds peace in the wilderness, and David (David Strathairn), whose strained relationships with extended family provides common ground with Fern.
It's the juxtaposition between the so-called "normal" American lifestyle and Fern's reluctance to leave the road that passes for a central theme. Neither her sister nor David's son can fathom why anyone would choose what barely amounts to subsistence living when alternatives, undignified as they may be, still exist.
Nomadland has been referred to as a "neo-Western" by some, though it lacks certain key traits. None of Zhao's nomads are out for revenge, for example, and the idea that any of the principal characters "deserve" their fates (actions have consequences) is murky, at best.
But there's no denying that Fern and her companions are traversing a frontier, only this one confronts people without options, as opposed to promising prosperity to those with intrepid spirits, or whatever.
There's even a buffalo on hand, for those who need the quiet part said out loud.
Holding it all together is McDormand. Fern bends but never breaks under her hardship, which fluctuates in its intensity but is never far away. It's hard to imagine another actor either physically or emotionally capable of shouldering this role, and if she hadn't just won a slew of awards two years ago (for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), she'd most likely be a lock for more.
Those pointless concerns aside, Nomadland is poignant and thought-provoking, forcing us to acknowledge the failures of our system by confronting the ordeals of those cast aside by it.
Nomadland is now playing in select IMAX theaters. A limited theater run and Hulu premiere is coming February 19.