Nomadland ★★

38

There's a tension to Nomadland that ultimately fails the movie. It's initially found in the contrast between the docu style, with non-actors utilized for their stories and experiences, and the vanity of the project as a Frances McDormand vehicle. Her performance is quite good, as is David Strathairn, but they're both disconnected from the material. Too often the film is striving for an authenticity that isn't possible with professional actors in the mix. Watching her pretend while the people around her are fully existing in this experience is unsettling. "It should've been a documentary" is usually a reductive statement, but it's true here. Chloé Zhao found a balance with The Rider that was quite moving until it attempted to move into a more conventional lane, but with Nomadland, it's the lack of commitment to realism that doesn't work. Too often, Chloé Zhao is struggling to find a place for Frances McDormand amidst the generosity and struggle of the non-actors. For someone who is literally the main character, she somehow feels misplaced, and it causes the authenticity to crumble.

But other factors contribute to that. For one, the placement of an Amazon distribution center as a cycle of 'good pay' around the holidays doesn't sit well. It's portrayed as a normal job that she works, one of many throughout the film, and there's never a connection between the material conditions of the world she's existing in and the company itself. This may seem insidious but it's mostly a bone-headed move. Not a major part of the film but one that does illuminate its issues. Nomadland also frequently pulls its punches to ideas that deal directly with the reality of the premise. The Rider functioned as an examination of modern cowboy life, and this film similarly wants to tackle the physical and psychological existence of the American West, and the people who populate it, often away from the traditional structures of society. But it's too eager to gaze into the sunsets, opting instead for a stylistic exercise with Frances McDormand, picking small pieces from better true-life narratives to create a hodgepodge of wistful longing and empty platitudes.

I also didn't find it to be particularly beautiful, which is a problem just in how Chloé Zhao wants to articulate the vastness of the West. Many of the images feel shallow, with a lack of sensitivity and detail towards the landscapes. Nomadland is clearly inspired by Malick and Reichardt in equal doses but it's missing a texture unique to the story. It feels sanitized, and always on the fringes of capturing what's truly interesting. It's too bad because there's a lot here that could work, especially in regards to the underpinnings of grief and transitory life, even with how that relates to the spiritual, but it attempts a more ambitious mix of blending reality and fiction, and it falls on its face as a result.

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