RogerBW's Blog

Nomadland (2020) 18 July 2023

2020 pseudo-documentary, dir. Chloé Zhao, Frances McDormand; IMDb / allmovie. Migrant labour is still a thing.

There are some significant awkwardnesses here. One is that McDormand is playing a fictional character, and almost everyone else we meet isn't; they're genuine van-living nomads going from seasonal job to seasonal job, who agreed to be in front of the camera. McDormand is of course extremely good at acting, and she blends in (contrast Edward McDonald in Goodfellas, a sudden real person among a cast of actors, who just looks bizarrely different from the people we've been watching for the last hour); but when the fictional Fern is talking about the fictional death of her fictional husband, and the real Bob Wells is talking about the real suicide of his real son… well, it's awkward.

A version that I think would have worked better for me would have been a true documentary film, combining interviews with nomads as we see them here with segments of McDormand, or whoever, working out the practicalities of an unsupported low-budget life as someone learning the skills from scratch. (She and several of the crew did live in vans during filming.)

The other thing that's strange for me is the lack of rage. As presented here, one would think that most of these people have chosen to spend their sixties and seventies driving around looking for another few weeks of casual work, scrimping and saving to keep the van running. Clearly it can be an enjoyable life, if you like driving, but there is no security to it, and no way to build up a reserve in case of ill health or a desire to take some time off. Some of these people have families they can force themselves on when times get tough (and those families are clearly not happy about grandpa living on a shoestring, especially given the cost of medical care in the USA); others presumably don't.

But for a lot of real nomads, it's not meaningfully a choice: it's sell the house to pay off the debts and buy a van with what's left, or have the house seized anyway and be out on the street. In Fern's case, her husband has died, and the company town where she lived has closed down, so the conventional promise of work till you're old then get a pension has simply been broken. But there's nobody here who's angry at being forced into this life. Crapping into a bucket is just a thing you do, because that's your life now. Shrug.

It's a spiky film, therefore: a look at low-grade living that makes it seem quite fun, which clashes with my external knowledge of how cold it gets in an uninsulated vehicle. But it is beautifully shot, and the wide open spaces (so often in American film a metaphor for freedom) are effectively menacing too.

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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