Tags Posts tagged with "‘Nomadland’"


Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years.

By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.

— Epigraph to Nomadland

It is a cold, bleak landscape that confronts the viewer at the beginning of Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao’s powerful adaptation of journalist Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. The theme of empty expanse returns throughout the careful but compelling hundred-plus minutes. The methodical, introspective film is sparse on dialogue but rich in breadth and breath. The film appropriately takes its time traveling down a specific road.

Fern (a brilliantly understated Frances McDormand) is a widow who, in 2011, lost her job at the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, when the factory shut down. The factory’s closing resulted in Empire becoming a ghost town. Fern has sold most of her belongings and lives in a van that she has retrofitted herself. She travels the country looking for work. The film opens with her at the Amazon fulfillment center, working a seasonal job.

Invited by a coworker and friend, Linda May (touchingly playing a version of herself, as many in the film do), she visits a group in the Arizona desert, run by Bob Wells (also a version of himself). Wells hosts gatherings for “van-dwellers,” offering advice, support, and above all, community. Here, Fern connects with others who share similar plights — who, by fortune, luck, or choice — live on the road. Fern gains both insights into her own life along with practical survival skills. The rest of the film follows her learning curve as she goes from place to place but returning to this loose tribe who don’t want “to die with a sailboat in their driveway that they never used.” She wants nothing more than to coexist in communal friendship with the like-hearted.

There are glimpses into Fern’s earlier life, most notably a trip later in the film to borrow money from her sister, but, for the most part, the film focuses on the ever-present, day-to-day existence. This is a challenging undertaking for a filmmaker, but Zhao’s deliberate pacing and laser focus create both a pastoral arc and one of great tension. Fern drives, makes dinner on a hotplate, sleeps, then drives some more. She takes a job; she works; she leaves. She drives, humming to herself. She walks in nature, taking in its vastness but also completely at peace. And then she drives.

There are no villains in this film; the conflicts are rooted in the struggles of simple living. The people are kind, hard-working, and open. The impact of the challenges is not small. A blown tire or sub-zero temperatures are truly a matter of survival. But there is a complete absence of self-pity, equaled only in their frankness in discussing any topic — from dealing with waste to the contemplation of suicide. 

Throughout, what becomes most pronounced is their cumulative dignity. When questioned by a girl she had once tutored in Empire, Fern responds that she is “not homeless. I’m houseless. There’s a difference.” She says this with a smile and without apology. Her friend Swankie (another in a version of herself), from whom she learns a great deal, shares that she is dying of cancer but choosing to go on her own terms. Swankie gives away many of her possessions and heads back out to visit places she wants to see once more. 

Eventually, Nomadland shows these travelers do not dwell in emptiness, but instead in lives of peace, away from the trappings and limitations of self-imposed restrictions. Fern meets Dave (kind and open as played by David Strathairn) at the gathering and then again later. There are the slightest of romantic sparks. Eventually, Dave settles at his son’s house, where Fern visits him. He asks her to stay, but she realizes that it is not the life she wants. Fern reveals she has found herself in this wandering existence. The revelation is presented in the simplest of ways, but it is epiphanous in its weight and import.

Nomadland’s strength is an absence of pretension. Its documentary feel is intimate and spontaneous; Zhao creates the illusion of the characters speaking for themselves. (She is responsible for the taught screenplay and crisp editing.) And yet, there is a lyrical — almost poetic — quality to the deeper message. These nomads never say, “Goodbye.” Instead, it is always, “I’ll see you down the road.”

McDormand provides a performance of such reality that it is almost impossible to see her as an actor. In the fewest words, she presents stillness, sadness, humor, loss, hope … it is the subtlest rainbow of human emotions. While he has less screen time, Strathairn does not miss a beat. The supporting cast of predominantly “real” people playing some facet of themselves (characters bearing their first names) match these two gifted professionals. There is nothing of reality television or exploitation in this choice. Instead, their presence gives just another subtle shade in the spectrum that Zhao has created.

Composer Ludovico Einaudi has provided an exquisite score. Beautiful and melancholy, the music evokes the spirit and style of George Winston. It is both haunting and life-affirming, perfectly reflecting the film’s tone.

Nomadland has garnered dozens of awards, all of them deserved. The accolades set a high bar of expectation, but it is easily vaulted in the deceptively simple and truly honest storytelling. In some ways, the tale offers a shattering look at the crushing results of failed capitalism. But simultaneously, it celebrates the inspiring resilience of the human spirit. Nomadland is an exceptional journey “down the road.”

Rated R, Nomadland is playing in local theaters and streaming on demand.

Photos courtesy of Searchlight Pictures


'Nomadland' is TBR News Media's movie reviewer's pick for Best Picture this year.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

On Sunday, April 25, the 93rd Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center. The show will air live on ABC beginning at 8 p.m. Producer Steven Soderbergh has promised this year’s presentation to be completely different. With no live audience, COVID restrictions, and a host of other challenges, he promises an experience like no other Oscars. Okay. Sure. Whatever. But it still comes down to who wins and who loses.

Whether you’ve seen one or most or (the unicorn of movie-watching) all of the nominees, you have an opinion. Often, it’s the negative: “I can’t believe [insert title/actor/director/costume designer here] was nominated! That was the worst [movie/acting/direction/costume design].” “Did you see it?” you will ask. “Well, no. But I heard it was …” 

Heated discussions, office pools, gatherings, and myriad Facebook posts consume the battleground. And, of course, everything comes down to personal taste. (I have a weakness for large manor houses where they iron the newspapers. Thank you, Downton Abbey.) Here is a very personal assessment. And while I don’t know if it will find agreement, hopefully there won’t be too much gnashing of teeth.

It is a tight race for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with five worthy candidates. Riz Ahmed has one of those visceral roles as a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Steven Yeun’s young father in Minari; it is a small, quiet performance of deep nuance with a delicate mix of pain and hope in every moment. Anthony Hopkins hits all the right notes as a contrasting patriarch in The Father. Hopkins presents a devastating look at the torments of dementia. While there are glimpses of kindness — particularly in the final moments — it is a colder performance. Gary Oldman is exceptional in all he does; he is a true chameleon. But he won in 2018 for his Winston Churchill. Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in Mank, working on Citizen Kane, while engaging, doesn’t compare in gravitas. Chadwick Boseman’s musician Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was extraordinary, building up to one of the finest performed monologues in cinematic history. The award — sadly posthumous — is his — and rightfully so.

Best Actress in a Leading Role offers a range of possibilities. Viola Davis is mesmerizing as Ma Rainey; her performance is jaw-dropping in scope, fire, and nuance, and she is almost unrecognizable. That makes for a winning combination. What might cancel out Davis is Andra Day’s competing performance as another musical icon in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Both Vanessa Kirby and Frances McDormand (always a favorite) give powerful performances that dominated their films — Pieces of a Woman and Nomadland, respectively. Carey Mulligan — also seen giving a completely different performance in The Dig — is both harrowing and enigmatic in her portrait of revenge in Promising Young Woman; while not the kind of role that usually attracts high-profile awards, she could challenge Davis. But McDormand is still in the running with her multi-dimensional turn. This category is truly anyone’s game.

Equally hard to predict is Best Actor in a Supporting Role. While voters love a comedic actor in a serious role, Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7) is the least likely to win. As Sound of Metal didn’t get the viewers, this would also put Paul Raci at the back of the pack. With the remaining three — Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah and Leslie Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami — it is Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who will most likely take the trophy. There is always the possibility of a split vote with Stanfield, which could move Odom, Jr. or even Raci’s Viet Nam vet to the front.

As for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role nominees, Amanda Seyfried brings a hint of complexity to Mank’s Marion Davies, but it gets lost in the overall clutter of the film. And while Maria Bakalova has garnered accolades for Borat 2, the movie has divided audiences. Olivia Colman is beautifully measured as the daughter in The Father and, in another season, might have won. The oft-nominated Glenn Close does some of her best work in Hillbilly Elegy; like Oldman, she is unrecognizable. However, the film itself had so much political backlash that unfortunately makes a win very unlikely. I predict Youn Yuh-jung is going to receive the Oscar. Her grandmother in Minari is a wealth of surprises, eschews every expectation, and is the film’s heartbeat.

I am reluctant to pick a winner for Best Director as I have always felt the award is tied to the Best Picture (or perhaps should be). Unlikely are Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round and David Fincher for Mank. Lee Isaac Chung’s work might be too subtle in Minari, lacking in grand strokes. Emerald Fennell has done an exceptional job shaping Promising Young Woman, but I think the award will go to Chloé Zhao for the heartfelt guidance she has given to Nomadland.

Of the eight nominees for Best Picture, The Father is least likely to win. While memorable, its stage roots show. Sound of Metal has not gotten the traction that it needs to move up in the ranks. Mank is probably too much of an insider’s look into the film business. Promising Young Woman’s black comedy edge may be too much for much of its audience. The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah overlap in their portrayal of a time of political turmoil and intersect with portrayals of the murdered Black Panther Hampton. They are both historical and yet very timely, with the latter film being a stronger possibility. But it is the devastating, universal Nomadland (recipient of the Golden Globe for Best Drama) that will most likely take this year’s crown.

And that ends a very narrow, biased, wholly random assessment of a few of the upcoming Academy Award categories. Time — and Sunday night — will tell.

(Oh, and while there are some very fine works nominated for Best Animated Feature, my money is completely on Soul.)