“Nomadland” won the highest award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and that makes sense, as it portrays the United States in the way Europeans like best. It shows the wide-open spaces, the vast rock formations, the stark grandeur of the West. And it presents America as an economic wasteland, full of desperate people with no plumbing at all, just a bucket.
Written and directed by Chloe Zhao and based on a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, it deals with the real-life phenomenon of Americans in their 60s, who live in their vans and travel around the country, congregating in groups and seeking seasonal employment. These are people who were left unemployed by the Great Recession. They’re too young for Social Security, too old to start a new career and have just enough money to keep a van running.
Frances McDormand plays a recent widow, who has lost her job at a sheetrock factory and is starting life as a nomad. This character, Fern, is fictional, but a lot of the people she meets and runs into are real-life nomads, playing fictionalized versions of themselves. So “Nomadland” has a documentary feel.
“Nomadland,” in select theaters Friday, Jan. 29 (on Hulu Friday, Feb. 19), is not a conventional film. It is sometimes frustrating, and often it seems terribly pleased with itself (if you can imagine a movie having a self-image). It might have worked better as a documentary. But it’s well-made, and different, and it’s not slow.
One of the early frustrations of the film comes about five minutes in, when we realize that Fern has a problem that the movie cannot solve: She has no money. But because the idea here is that this is a whole class of people who have no money, or even hope of money, the movie cannot solve Fern’s problems without defeating its own point. Thus, we know from the beginning that Fern’s condition can’t fundamentally change. In narrative terms, “Nomadland” can only end on an ellipsis.
However, the filmmaker overcomes, or at least ameliorates, this in two ways: Zhao creates a sense of movement by skipping over chunks of time. Fern is in one place. Then she’s in another. Then she’s in another. Zhao doesn’t waste time on explanation. She conveys the sense of Fern’s life of movement by keeping the story itself moving.
That’s easy enough, to adopt an episodic structure. The second thing Zhao does is harder. She makes the individual episodes interesting. Fern meets a crusty older woman named Swankie (Charlene Swankie), who opens up and, in a glorious monologue, talks about all the magnificent things she has seen over the course of her 75 years on Earth.
In another strong sequence, she visits her sister’s house for the purpose of borrowing money. The sister — affectingly played by American Conservatory Theater’s former director Melissa Smith — lives a conventional middle-class life and seems to envy Fern’s existence, or at least regard it with awe and mystery. Smith brings a depth of history to her one long scene with McDormand.
As for McDormand, she has a wonderful lived-in quality and a willingness to be seen, and she imbues Fern with the dignity of someone holding fast in undignified circumstances. But over time, Fern’s ungiving nature starts to wear thin. It’s no accident that every time Fern has a scene with another person, the other person steals the scene.
Perhaps the source of the problem is in the tension between needing to make Fern both individual and emblematic. After all, if she’s emblematic, anything that makes her individual lessens her ability to stand as an archetype. So, she has to be a withheld, blank personality almost by design.
On at least two occasions, and arguably three, Fern refuses the offer of a nice, secure place to live, free of charge, forever. Immediately, we’re forced to consider that maybe Fern’s problem isn’t the lack of money or housing. Maybe she’s a little crazy. Or she’s simply eccentric enough to crave a life on the road.
“Nomadland” doesn’t once suggest that Fern has been driven mad by destitution, simply that she prefers being a nomad. She has access to central heating and indoor plumbing, but chooses a cold van and bucket. This is America — her choice. But why, then, the implication that Fern is in some way our collective problem? She’s doing what she wants.
Still, “Nomadland” is too singular a film to dismiss on technicalities. It’s very much its own thing, very much an original experience, and must be counted as some odd kind of good movie.
The New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) celebrated its 86th annual awards ceremony to recognise this year’s talents.
The pre-recorded ceremony was hosted by NYFCC Chair Stephanie Zacharek of Time Magazine. She presented awards alongside last year’s winners Martin Scorsese (Best Film, The Irishman) and Bong Joon-Ho (Best Foreign Language Film, Parasite) as well as Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, Chloe Sevigny and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Norm Lewis was also on hand to honor his late, 'Da 5 Bloods' co-star Chadwick Boseman. His wife, Taylor Simone Ledward accepted his award for Best Supporting Actor.
Scorsese honored Spike Lee with a special award for his short 'New York New York', which was shot during the pandemic. The Da 5 Bloods filmmaker recorded his acceptance speech on January 6 when Trump supporters invaded the Capitol. “We’re at the crossroads now and everybody please be safe. This is not a game” he said. “This president agent orange will go down in history with the likes of Hitler,” he added before saying that politicians who have stood by Trump’s side are “on the wrong side of history.”
Here's the full list of winners.
Presented by Bong Joon-ho
Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Presented by Frances McDormand
Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Presented by Chloë Sevigny
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Presented by Alfre Woodard
Best Supporting Actress
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Movie film
Presented by Sacha Baron Cohen
Best Supporting Actor
Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods
Presented by Norm Lewis
Best Foreign Language Film
Shabier Kirchner, Small Axe (all films)
Best Nonfiction Film
Best First Film
The 40-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank)
Best Animated Film