Movie Opinion – A missed OPPORTUNITY

Raghav Raj | Staff Writer

Nomadland movie poster

In an awards season flipped on its head now that COVID-19 has left most movie theaters shuttered for a year, rendering the box office almost all but irrelevant, few films have received the amount of plaudits that Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland has.

And, many might argue, for good reason. Zhao’s third feature film is a visually arresting feat, rendering the American West in the sort of vividly detailed tracking shots that’d make John Ford stare in awe. Furthermore, it features a masterfully subtle performance from two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand, one that’s well-worn and deeply, movingly human.

Nomadland has also been hailed by many critics for its timely subject manner. It’s based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, centered around older Americans who adopted nomadic lifestyles in the wake of the Great Recession.

But, where Bruder’s book took a genuinely enlightening look at the class conditions that abandoned these people, Zhao’s Nomadland is strangely toothless. It could’ve easily taken a stance against the exploitative and abusive practices of Amazon — currently browbeating workers away from forming a union — but the film never ventures to make a critique, with McDormand’s character Fern instead saying this: “you can make some good money at Amazon.”

Past that misstep, there are other blunders that feel utterly perplexing. For example, a nomadic friend of Fern’s goes in for a major surgery, but the whole process is breezed over to a great extent, which is odd given how broken our healthcare system is. Furthermore, there’s a whole scene where a nomad celebrates being born in the USA, especially incongruous when considering the fact that it was America’s broken social safety net that led these people to adapt nomadic lifestyles in the first place.

Far too often, I’m left wishing that Zhao told the authentic stories of the people featured in Bruder’s book — stories that express a deep frustration at the capitalist system that led them to the lifestyle they’ve adopted. Instead, she sandpapers all this away, and what’s left is a film that’s truly gorgeous, but doesn’t really know what it wants to say.