Academy Awards season: “Nomadland” review

Arts & Entertainment

Nolen Kelly, Staff

Header image: Hulu

When I finally got around to watching Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” I was pretty excited to add another notch into my “Frances McDormand is a better actress than Meryl Streep, there I said it” belt. It is a very real belt and I will die on this hill. “Fargo,” “Almost Famous,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” are three of my favorite movies of their respective decades and the one thing they all have in common is Frances McDormand. I initially was not too excited for this movie, but when I read McDormand was attached to it, it was enough to sway me. I went into “Nomadland” with some kind of expectation to be blown away, but I finished with something else — reality. After an entire town is shut down and forced to relocate due to the closing of a sheetrock company manufacturing gypsum, we follow Fern, a former worker who lives off the land.

I cannot stress how great Frances McDormand is. She always finds ways to reinvent her acting career and despite the bizarre connection of motherhood between her three aforementioned rolls from my introduction, McDormand has a wide range of talents that show just how timeless her performances are. In “Nomadland” I felt like I witnessed one of the rawest performances any actor has ever given. This was such a bare-bones and minimal performance I’m shocked it was even considered an actual performance. At no point did this feel like watching an “actor do acting,” but what felt more like a documentary on nomadism. Similar to “Sound of Metal,” this film is a masterclass of performance, and a very strong one at that. Rather than McDormand’s typical in-your-face yet subtly emotionally developing style of acting we see a very stripped back kind of performance that sets the mood for the rest of the movie. 

The movie is nominated for an impressive six Academy Awards for acting, directing and best picture. Basing a movie’s success off the number of awards it was nominated for or won is a terrible way to measure quality, but the recognition is still very impressive. I think that if there is anything for this movie to walk away with, it is the award for Best Directing for Chloé Zhao. She has already received some much-deserved recognition for it, and I couldn’t agree more. If the idea of the movie is to convey how scattered yet grounded it can be to have nothing but the people you associate with and the minimal possessions you have, then the structure of the story should resemble something close to that. I think this movie does the opposite of what many movies do, which is typically to use their time to establish a world we do not know and create the rules for us to understand. “Nomadland” is more about stripping away and deconstructing a world we do know and showing us something we may not fully understand right away: our own world. There is some kind of poetry when watching a woman who lived a “normal” life decide that continuing with the nothing she had was her way of finding some kind of catharsis that a home life could not give her. 

Searchlight Pictures

I talked about this movie with my parents after we had watched it, and I think they both described the movie the best after their respective viewings. My father stated, “Nomadland has two running stories — the story of McDormand living her life as a nomad and living her life as an older unemployed woman.” While my mother described it as “extremely chill, a think-about-life type of movie.” They both could not be more spot-on. Fern is an older woman who bounces around from one odd job to another, and the whole time she just wants to work and keep moving. There is no ulterior motive, no driving force and no end goal. Fern is just trying to get around. People do not always need a motive or a story to move forward, they just do it. Fern’s story is an examination of why we do the things we do for others and ourselves when we do not have much to offer. 

“Nomadland” is not a hard movie to watch, but it is not easy due to the very little story and action that happens. It requires you to pay attention without making you think, and it makes you think without breaking your brain. It is a good movie to experience for yourself and a good movie to have your own thoughts on. I really enjoyed this, and I think it is worth the watch. On a scale from “Awful” to “Perfection,” I would say “Nomadland” is “Great,” and we will have to wait and see if the Academy of Motion Pictures agrees at the Oscars which premiere at 8 p.m. on April 25.

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