Nomadland

Nomadland ★★★★

Like The Rider before it, Nomadland is wrapped in empathy for hardship in the forgotten corners of the desolate American West. The Rider focuses more more on the austerity to overcome by staying put. Nomadland shows that leaving troubles behind has a freedom to it, but also creates a rudderless existence of constant uncertainty. Both movies deal with the absence of meaningful or long-standing work. Nomadland is more hopeful, which might be from being called up to the big leagues and potential Oscar planes, but I think a few more gusts of hope reaffirms what it's like to be on the road—particularly the wide open roads of the Western United States, where there are more rocky crags and drifting clouds than people staying in one place.

For me, there is only misstep and it's how quickly a major financial setback is settled without engaging with the immense earth-crashing feeling of not having the money saved for a setback that you need to fix. Fern's van breaks down and she makes a phone call to a sister, calls her a bitch, and then it's settled, come pick up the cash. Not only is this quick, but the script seems to rush past the emotional moment and awkwardness of asking for help to make sure to get in a 2008 real estate discussion with friends at her sister's home. It's the movie's only on-the-nose moment and it comes at the expense of exploring the very real statistic that 40% of American adults wouldn't be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge. Again, this is only a minor quibble but it sticks out to me as someone whose car many times in his 20s and early 30s became the very thing that could grant me freedom to move and run away but also could quickly become the albatross that could sink me because I couldn't fix it. These are major moments of adaptation in the face of disaster over small sums of money and Nomadland skims past it. Still, the moments on the road are fantastic and Chloé Zhao's ability to be accepted into various communities is so warmly evident. It's a unique feeling to come from the screen: the awareness that the filmmaker and her crew has been accepted amongst a tribe and they do not seem at all like they'd ever be abandoned.

David Strathairn's presence as a potential love interest (and definite friend) to Frances McDormand's odd jobs vagabond is a perfect pairing, reminding of his work with John Sayles, the kind-hearted pro-union, anti-capitalist indie darling of the 80s and 90s. Zhao indeed might be this generation's Sayles. Though the power of Zhao's work comes less from her written words and more through the image, the pacing, the direction of the actors and those who play themselves/re-tell their personal stories in a dramatic narrative. The Rider had a more profound effect on me than Nomadland but I appreciate how warmly her films reflect her subjects just the same.

An Empire vanished. But people's souls remain.

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