Oscar’s Best Picture favorite “Nomadland” (2020) starts with a nod to John Ford’s iconic opening shot from “The Searchers” (1956). The classic Western shows the silhouette of a woman in her darkened home, looking out onto the vast landscape. Writer/director/editor/producer Chloé Zhao brilliantly reverses the shot in her film which shows a silhouette of a woman on the outside, looking into a darkened storage shed that houses her possessions.
“I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” Fern (played by Frances McDormand, who co-produced the film) soon explains. She’s lost her job, her husband, and her house. The story is set in 2011, after the 2008 recession began, when women such as Fern were particularly hard hit.
According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 50 percent of women over 50 who lose their jobs find themselves on long-term unemployment because it’s more difficult for their demographic to get hired due to age and gender discrimination. But since Fern is determined to find work, she does so as a devalued employee.
After taking a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center, Fern moves on in search of other gigs. Along the way, she experiences humiliation when running into old friends and finds inspiration when meeting new compadres. The latter quotes lyrics from “Rubber Ring” by The Smiths and Morrissey’s “Home Is A Question Mark” while the former recalls part of Macbeth’s soliloquy. Later, Fern recites the sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” by William Shakespeare.
In addition to literal poetry, the film features a moving and subtle score by Ludovico Einaudi and sweeping vistas shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who includes images of a fake dinosaur and real buffalo; creatures that once thrived on earth but, like Fern, no longer seem to have a place.
While the film is filled with verbal, musical and visual poetry, it lacks priority in its treatment of scenes. The story often gleans over significant moments in favor of dwelling on the most mundane. For example, more time is spent showing Fern on the toilet (erh, bucket) than on her love interest (David Strathairn) having surgery.
Despite various obstacles in Fern’s life, the film doesn’t provide much tension. As a result, the near two-hour runtime seems longer than it actually is. At its most interesting is a sequence when Fern stays with her sister (Melissa Smith). But even then, the conflict between successful male homeowners and nomad Fern is quickly resolved as her sis puts a positive spin on the situation (and adds gravitas to the film’s theme), saying, “I think that what the nomads are doing is not that different than what the pioneers did. I think Fern’s part of an American tradition.”
“Nomadland” is currently playing at cinemas in Chicago. It can also be streamed digitally on Hulu. The film is moderately recommended.
Top image: Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020.
Second image: Dorothy Jordan in “The Searchers” courtesy of C.V. Whitney Pictures ©1956; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020.