Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is probably going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this Sunday, and as 21st-century Best Picture winners go, it won’t be an embarrassment along the lines of Crash or Green Book, to say nothing of the cinematic atrocity that was Birdman. I didn’t hate Nomadland as I was watching it, even though there were aspects of it that I found trite and telegraphed. (When it comes to the idea of replacing “goodbye,” with “see you down the road,” well, The Simpsons did it.) But the more I have thought about the movie since watching it, the more it has started to bother me. I don’t think Nomadland has much of anything to say, but it’s a film that wants to have something to say, and wants its viewers to think it has something to say. It’s an Oscar-bait movie dressed up as art-house fare, Hillbilly Elegy with an MFA and a penchant for framing its subjects in the soft light of the golden hour.
My Slate colleague Joshua Keating wrote a sharp critique of Nomadland’s disinterest in systemic or structural issues—politics, in other words—and the film has been particularly criticized for its kid-gloves depiction of Amazon’s “CamperForce” program. The film’s star and its director have not exactly issued convincing rebuttals to any of this. Last year, McDormand (who also produced the film) called it “a really smart move for [Amazon] because … we are telling a story about a person who is benefitting from hard work,” a quote that reads like a genial admission of corporate propaganda. “If you look deeply, the issue of eldercare as a casualty of capitalism is on every frame. It’s just, yes, there is the beautiful sunset behind it,” Zhao herself told New York magazine, proving that the Marvel Cinematic Universe–bound indie darling has Hollywood-grade bullshitting skills.
Nomadland tells the story of Fern, an itinerant worker played by Frances McDormand in a performance that may fetch her third Best Actress trophy. (If McDormand wins, she will be the category’s second three-time winner after Katharine Hepburn, who also won a fourth.) McDormand is of course a marvelous actress and does fine work in the role, bringing to life a character who, in her own words, likes to work, relishes the freedom of van life, and pridefully refuses charity. Fern is a widow with no close family, and many of the film’s most affecting moments revolve around her still-potent grief over the loss of her husband.
It’s also a role that feels calibrated to win an Oscar. Nomadland is shot entirely on location and mostly uses nonprofessional actors, with the main exceptions of McDormand and David Strathairn. These are well-worn “indie” techniques whose roots lie in the enormously influential movement of postwar Italian neorealism, but the neorealists mostly didn’t use professional actors at all, and certainly not stars on the level of McDormand. Fern in Nomadland is like if Antonio Ricci in Bicycle Thieves were played by Jimmy Stewart.
The result is a mix of vérité and performance that heightens the impact of McDormand’s “transformation,” to use that synonym for acting preferred by people who vote for awards. Nomadland features a matter-of-fact scene of a diarrhea-stricken Fern defecating into a bucket, a moment that’s been frequently cited as proof of its unflinching reality. But McDormand’s stardom is necessary for the moment to work; Zhao wouldn’t film a scene of one of her nonprofessional actors shitting in a bucket because doing so would be so obviously degrading, even if that’s the scene’s point.
At the film’s climax, Fern is offered a chance to retire in comfort in an almost deus ex machina moment of generosity, but she turns it down, choosing to return to a life of backbreaking work on the open road. That ending alone forecloses any possibility that Nomadland might offer a coherent critique of political conditions, as Fern’s poverty is now explicitly a personal choice, but in fact the impossibility of such a critique is baked into the movie’s concept. For starters, Nomadland can never decide whether it’s a movie about Fern or about the conditions of the world that she moves through. She’s a rugged individualist whose decisions are guided by a need for self-reliance and an excess of pride, clichés of the Western genre that have been around for as long as the genre has existed. The more the movie veers into the sort of character study that a great actor can sink their teeth into, its story becomes one of Fern Being Fern. When the film offers Fern a way out of poverty and she chooses not to take it, it’s effectively saying, “Hey, some people are just meant to live this way,” which is what rich people have told themselves about poor people for as long as those two groups have existed.
What’s more, all of the narrative archetypes that Nomadland is drawn to are themselves fantasies of capitalist ideology: the “freedom” offered by the American West (like most Westerns, Nomadland is an overwhelmingly white film), the stubbornly self-reliant protagonist for whom hard work is dignity, a “road movie” whose romance is explicitly linked to the geographic flexibility provided by wage labor. All of these notions are the stuff of capitalist wet dreams, and have been for as long as they’ve existed. Just as it’s hard to make a movie critical of systems that’s so centrally concerned with the interiority of a single character, it’s nearly impossible to make a movie critical of capitalism whose tropes rely so heavily on capitalism’s own myths.
Maybe I’m just not looking deeply enough at those frames. But here is a detail I noticed while watching Nomadland that I haven’t entirely been able to shake. Nomadland is set 10 years ago—the movie begins in 2011—and yet the Amazon sequences are quite obviously shot in present-day Amazon fulfillment centers, shiny and state-of-the-art. There’s an obvious reason for this—they shot the movie, which cost less than $5 million, in real Amazon fulfillment centers—but it’s a weird quirk for a film otherwise so concerned with verisimilitude. Critics who’d accuse the film of an overly cozy and complicit relationship to Amazon would likely (and rightly) point to this inconsistency as further evidence of such.
But to me it actually betrays something much more telling about what this film is interested in and what it isn’t. There is no good reason, after all, that Nomadland has to be set in 2011. That is indeed the year the nonfiction book that it is based on is set, but the film liberally diverges from its source material in a number of other ways. Why not just set Nomadland in 2018, the year it was shot?
The main reason that I can think of is the elephant in the room of the past decade of American life: the rise of Donald Trump. Nomadland is set in parts of the country that overwhelmingly supported Trump, and features the very demographic he most successfully energized, older white Americans who felt betrayed by their country. It would be impossible to tell this story as set in the present day without engaging with MAGA, building the wall, locking her up, Facebook radicalization, QAnon, and all the other poisonousness that has seeped into the rural, downwardly mobile, racially isolated white boomer electorate.
That’s obviously a much more complicated and uglier story, and it’s one that Nomadland’s makers are about as eager to get into as Nomadland’s viewers are eager to hear it. Telling that story well would make for a better movie, and a far more difficult one. So instead we get beautiful sunsets and transformational acting, a film about poverty that flatters its makers for making it and its audience for watching it. That audience is certainly not the people that Nomadland is actually about, and that audience likely doesn’t want to spend much more time thinking about those people once the movie is over. Nomadland makes sure they don’t have to, and if the film wins big on Sunday, that will surely be a reason why.
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