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‘…a haunting, deeply depressing film about man’s inhumanity to our fellow man or woman, a Grapes of Wrath for the new, withering century before us…’

The Oscars, and the benighted awards season, come and go with a whimper. It’s a tough gig to organise a celebration of excellence in film during a year when cinemas largely remained closed. Of course, if you did find an open cinema, and were prepared to brave the virus to get there, perhaps a drama about the hard-scrabble existence of today’s societal nomads wouldn’t be top of your list, but in 2021, we’ll warm ourselves by the burning trash-can of abandoned dreams.

That’s certainly the philosophy of Fern (Frances McDormand), the central character in Chloe Zhao’s meditative character study. Taking inspiration from Jessica Bruder’s book about the sparse communities of downtrodden folk who are still trying to get their lives on track after the Great Recession of 2008/9, we first meet Fern as she completes a seasonal work-stint at one of Amazon’s utterly sinister-sounding ‘fulfilment centres’. With no safety net in terms of health or unemployment insurance, Fern retreats to the van she lives in, and reluctantly heads to a commune in Arizona. A friendship with David (David Strathairn) provides some light relief until ill-health and family problems come between them. With little more than her relationships to support her, Fern contemplates an outsider existence that is precariously balanced on finance she does not have.

Miserablism isn’t a great look in Hollywood, not even for a micro-budget indie, but McDormand, pictured sitting on the toilet in her van here, has no vanity when it comes to depicting the tougher side of life. She’s been an engaging star in Fargo and Three Billboards, and makes Fern feel like a real person; it helps that some of those she encounters are played by real-life nomads, and the film has the flinty feel of authenticity. That said, pain is something hard to depict without accusations of poverty porn; Nomadland’s studied view of Fern’s predicament may well be too bleak for general audiences, already exhausted by the incessant hail of bad news. Like Fern, Nomadland could and should have been a contender; it’s a film of quiet values that should at least have garnered an awards-friendly run at the box-office. Zhao’s drama is a haunting, depressing film about man’s inhumanity to our fellow man or woman, a Grapes of Wrath for the new, withering century before us.

What does all this mean for the flickering spectre of cinema? For some, the backslapping has just begun. “I think I’m going to cry’ said a BAFTA spokesman as the shortlists arrived, ‘A good job well done,’ chimed a Film 4 executive. The awards nominees certainly reflected industry diversity, but that was the definition of a false positive since their competition didn’t turn up. The same shortlists also couldn’t help but reflect the collapse of revenue streams for indie and commercial cinema; the operation may well have been a success, but the patient died on the table some time ago. A pack of hopefuls like Nomadland had their release dates shifted again and again in search of a decent chance at finding audiences, but time ran out for us to see them; like Fern, we will just have to hunker down in the rubble and pray for better times but without some radical, revolutionary thinking from the top down, cinema’s days as a mass, populist entertainment appear numbered.

It’s a measure of how completely confused cinema currently is in 2021 that Nomadland will make it’s UK debut on the Disney channel, yup, the Disney channel, in the UK from April 30th 2021.

Thanks to Premier Awards Comms for advanced access to this title.


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  1. What I loved the most about this film is how it investigates how fragile our life plans can be, how people often slip into the template of marriage, work, the “American Dream” or its modern-day equivalent, not because we want to genuinely do those things, but because we can’t think of a better way. I really felt like Fern, at the end of the day, knew what life she didn’t want (the traditional, stay-in-one-place lifestyle most people have), but she didn’t know what she wanted, other than to see amazing things and to accrue some memorable experiences before she died.

    I definitely feel that a lot of people lean too far into the poverty aspect of the film. Yes, Fern’s life is hard, but it’s made clear that she’s a hard, consistent worker who is more than capable of supporting herself and escaping her van life if she wanted to, even if she might not have been able to maintain the large house she used to own with her husband, and had to downgrade to something like an apartment. And it was made clear that at any time, she was free to live with her sister. I’ve seen a lot of pieces make it seem like Fern has no choice but to live the way she does, but it’s a very intentional choice driven by the destruction of her old life with her husband, and her inability to process it fully and move on.

    • Agree with most of what you say, although the specific depection of the Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ certainly awakened some kind of poverty anxiety in me, even if it may not in Fern. That Grapes of Wrath notion conjures up notions of migrant workers and the Depression, and although Fern has both choice and agency, the constant repairs needed to her van work against any notions of lyrical or pastoral freedom. But it is admirable that Fern will not settle down, and a wandering spirit is not new; it’s great to celebrate that wanderlust.

  2. “Poverty porn”… yes, I wanted to empathize and connect with Fern but I could only watch as she pushed everyone out of her life to wander alone like Jesus in the wilderness or something. I felt like a voyeur peeking through the window of her “ratty” van getting some sort of sick thrill of schadenfreude that she was more miserable and lost than me. Fern was running away from or seeking something but she gives no glimmer of a hint as to what that might be. There is a saying: “all who wander are not lost.” But, those who are truly lost wander for eternity. “See you on down the road…”

    • And the wanderlust you describe remains a mystery. I guess there will be a backlash of sorts, people who watch this because it’s an Oscar-winner and dodn’t like what they see. It does feel like she was born to wander, and jobs only hold her in place for so long….thanks for this comment!

  3. I could relate to her character as I am a widow myself and I cried at her plight. The dialogue between the characters I felt was too spare. I was at times not following her progressions but I was always engrossed in the lifestyle and enjoyed watching the cameraderie of the people.

    • Thanks for this comment; I think the relatability of the central character is part of what makes the film work. It did capture a lifestyle, even if not all the scenes were gripping, the overall situation is moving and relates to today’s anxieties.

  4. I recall the conversation when Whiplash won. The article spoke of how the box office on it was awful before — and after the win.

    Now, box office, I believe, should have no bearing on nods or wins. Just because a film doesn’t connect with an audience, doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Also, just because a film is runaway success, doesn’t mean it’s good . . . enough for a nod and gets a free pass.

    That said. This is a great film that deserves to recognition. There is, however, so much public negativity towards the Oscars these past years, I hope that doesn’t keep people from hitting the VOD or PPV buttons to expose themselves to a culture I had no idea existed.

    • I was hitting every screening room in NYC the year Whisplash won three Oscars, looking for anything better; it was the best of a really bad bunch. But that was just a duff year; this year, there practically is no cinema to celebrate. The nominated films should have been part of a programme, bundled together for streaming and physical screenings where possible to maintain interest. But that joined up thinking is beyond the reach of everyone in charge, who seem intent on going down with their own ships. The public will drift away without any sense of loss..

    • Absolutely, it’s a moving and relevant film, and those begudging the star a third Oscar should remember that he name is the one that will get the film seen.

  5. Don’t any of you go to independent cinemas in the UK? As far as I can see Nomadland will open at HOME in Manchester, Watershed in Bristol and, I assume, other similar cinemas from May 17. Presumably it will be in the first public programmes at GFT and Edinburgh Filmhouse. I expect it will do very good business, or the best it can with social distancing requirements.

    I kind of wish it didn”t have a star like McDormand. The Rider was one of the best films I’ve seen from North America in recent years and from what I’ve seen of Zhao’s first feature Songs my Brothers Taught Me that is equally as good. But I see Ms Zhao wanted to put herself into the marketplace. I bet her multiplex movies won’t have anything like the deep humanity of her first two films.

    • I take your point, but my concern here is for commercial cinema, not charities. We’re already paying for them, and they will be fully dependant on their support, since it’s impossible to make money out of socially distant screenings. The Oscars crop usually makes a lot of cash and bring people to the cinema to see new, different and more serious films. Unless you’re willing to spend £100 plus on subsciptions to Sky, Disney, Netflix, Prime, Curzon and others, the casual viewer who used to catch the big awards movies as part of their £20 a month Cineworld card will just give up and watch any of the many less prohibitively priced alternatives around. And all this year’s Warners films are straight to streaming in the US, so there’s no way that any youth element will be turning up to pay £20 for content they can watch at home for free. The eco-system of commerial cinema is ruined, and that won’t be good for anyone in the long run.

      I’m a fan of Ms Zhao too, and I just hope that the next thing we hear is not that she’s making Hulk 5 or Fast and Furious 10.

      • She’s supposedly in post-production of The Eternals for the Marvel Comics Universe with Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Gemma Chan. Presumably this was part of the deal which Disney put together with her. IMDb thinks it might be released in November this year.

        • Oh no, I was genuinely joking about what her next project might be…comic book movies seem to be where today’s talent goes to die…

  6. I thought Nomadland was okay. Not a subject I’m interested in, but it was well directed and I didn’t mind it winning. The Oscars on the other hand, were a complete trainwreck (appropriately filmed in a train station).

    • I’m only catching the gory details now. As noted elsewhere, the tail wagged the dog this year in terms of the awards shows pinning films into unsuitable release dates, but the awards themselves have been shambolic in execution across the board.

  7. Nomadland aside, you’re going to hate my opinion of the oscars, which is similar to my view of royalty. The lst one was held to promote the film industry, ditto for emmy’s, grammy’s, sports awards…it’s political–nothing’s changed.
    But lst, accolades for your zingers: ‘warm ourselves by the burning trash-can of abandoned dreams; miserablism isn’t a great look in Hollywood; poverty porn…’ I had a tough time with Nland; I like gritty, bleak landscape movies–Mad Max, the quirky Steel Dawn, and The Road. The movie moved thru the middle of the US, but certainly not its heart as the trailer implied. The folks that heeded the 1800s call, go west…were often desperate last chancers.The heart is ‘an organ of fire,’ as the Englishman’s lover reminded. There’s little fire in the west–just dust and rocks.
    I liked the character Swankie & her attitude. I agree, there’s a bit of Grapes of Wrath in the movie, a snippet of Easy Rider w/out the Harley’s and racists, and a hint of Into the Wild. I’d hoped for more Motorcycle Maintenance philosophy or a comedic homage (Pee-Wees Big Adventure or Planes, Trains, Autos). I’ve known people like Fern. The ones that had no real goal or evolving purpose are all dead. The ones that chose a nomad existence to enable them to accomplish an important goal have (mostly) survived and thrived. If you receive an award for BEST, that doesn’t mean you are–it just means certain beholders perceive (subjectively) you are. Can you really quality quantify art? Is the art that gets awards reflective of universal culture and values? Why isn’t it enough to say ‘I gave it my all; did the best I could–a thank you is enough?’

    • I want to see YOUR Nomadland, mixing Mad Max and Pee Wee Herman; in fact, I’m sure someone, somewhere it remixing Nomadland as a rom-com or action comedy. I think it’s a good film, but not the BEST Picture of this or any year. There’s gping to be a few casualties watching this ie people passing out with boredome. Just because something is hard work doesn’t mean it’s good. I do like this film, but that wrapper of Best Picture is going to annoy many potential viewers when they actually see it. We’re rewarding the politics via awards, not the experience.

      Something I watched over the weekend, Castle Keep, I think, had a line to the effect ‘She’s not a work of art, so don’t think you should be judging her.’ I enjoy writying about and discussing these films, but my opinion changes, and there’s no science about this. I take all awards lightly, they’re just guides. But I do like to find and reward unheralded work, which is often as meaninguyl, if not more so, than the lauded hyped effeorts of the studios. An award doesn’t mean that something is good, in my world anyway….

  8. *Ding dong, cinema is dead!*

    Damning words, but hard to deny it hasn’t been coming. I’ve hardly watched any of the films put up for the Oscars, and I doubt I’ll be leaving my house anytime soon to go a cinema. It appears TV is may be the future, for better or worse…

    • I wouldn’t rush, they’re a dreich bunch in general, PYW is the best, I wouldn’t begrudge a movie of Nomadland’s poetic, kitchen-sink qualities, and some of the others had real merit, but this is a race for which the public had no skin in the game. And as noted elsewhere, the awards seaon has done the opposite of what it’s meant to do, dooming movies to a range of obscure streaming homes where few will be able to catch up with them without a massive bill…should I ask how the footie went?

      • Yeah, none of the films seem to have made any impact at all, and I think they’ll all soon be quickly forgotten – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

        The less we talk about that match the better. The worse part was that it was inevitable.

        • After all the waffle about rejecting the super-league, there’s rarely any real spectacle or entertainment about a 1-0 game. Play with multiple goals and balls, or spikes that come through the floor like in Flash Gordon. Let lions loose on the turf. Make a product that’s less tediously predicatable….

          • Now that I would watch. Just rules that would make the game as ridiculous as possible. Your ones are actually quite good. No hands for the goalkeeper for five minutes! A 20kg football for ten minutes! No ref for another ten! Let’s get this up and running. SUPER DUPER EXTRA COOL FOOTBALL!

            • Wolverhampton Werewolves Vs Aldershot Andriods ! 15 bonus points for the most stylish decapitations of family members! Anti-gravity switches during injury breaks! I’m in!

              • Most stylish shoe shining! Who can eat the most sardines in 30 seconds? Best toothbrushing action! Best Mr T impression! 40 bonus points for the first to kill Elon Musk! Not sure Sky would be targeting the best audience. BT sport?

  9. I’ve been reading books, so old fashioned of me… but my issue is I don’t have Prime or Hulu, etc. so I don’t see much on TV anymore. I want to see Nomadland asap.

    • Book always better for you! But you are correct, not everybody wants streaming…and the regular $20 a film prove is prohibitive to anyone who used to pay the same amount for unlimited cinema. Good to hear from you!

    • I’d have given picture and actress to Promising Young Woman, and direcor to Zhao for this. Hard to know who you could recommend this to, it’s bleak.

      • Yeah, it isn’t my cup of Darjeeling from the description, I have to say. But Frances McDormand is a performer for the ages. On her day, she knocks it out the park to the max.

  10. Won’t be watching Nomadland, sounds miserable and McDormand’s voice gets on my nerves, though I know she’s a great actor. As for cinemas going down the pan, I gave up going a long time ago, quite happy with our set up at home, and don’t need to miss anything if I need a loo break!

  11. Recently the best-selling book genres have been cooking and do-it-yourself. I see films like this as almost a kind of instructional (mind you haven’t watched it yet) to prepare the more beat of us, in terms of economics if not spirit, to live in our cars. Our practical, rather than fantastic, needs being met. Adding a touch of something like soul to the experience (the hippies definitely were nursing some of that) gives the hobo a depth of more than just inconvenience and stench, I suppose. But do I need a lot of films about probable outcomes of a collapsing society and warping values, as I roast the dog on the make-shift shopping-cart grill?

    • Right; I can see The Nomadland Cookbook being a thing, Recipies for a Hard-Scrabble Life, with foreword by Frances McDormard. But as you say, we may all be living this life without any choice being involved, so maybe we need to be careful what we wish for. I’m throwing another couple of rats on the grill if you fancy coming over to discuss?

      • weren’t films originally sort of meant to distract us from our troubles? :p Oh well!
        I’ll opt for a Greasy Chip Butty while we still have a civilization!! (mind you I don’t actually know what a Greasy Chip Butty is!)

        • As UK Ambassador, I can fill you in. Soak some bread in butter for a week. Then wrap the bread around some sliced potatoes drenched in fat. Consume until medical attention arrives.

  12. Nomadland seemed to be picking up top awards everywhere it played, so was the favourite for the Oscars best picture and direction. I’m slightly surprised it didn’t get best cinematography as well, but then again I thought Mank was far too self-regarding. But while the heavyweight movies are noticeable by their absence, it has at least allowed films like Mank, The Father, Minari, Promising Young Woman, etc to get more prominence. Sadly, at the moment at least, it just means they are demoted to be mere adverts for Netflix, Disney or whatever streaming platform has absorbed them into the Borg.

    Over the past couple of years Roma, The Irishman and others did that already for Netflix with minimal cinema screenings, but the pandemic seems to have accelerated that trend, though it’s not the root cause of it.

    Will people ever return to the cinema in their masses? I don’t know, but I imagine people will always want to see the latest Marvel or Batman on the biggest screen possible (Snyder cut release excepted, perhaps). Dune and Bond look like they’re going to be released within a week of one another, fighting over the Screen 1s and IMAXs. Will that be enough to keep cinemas open? I fear the danger is for the middle-brow and arthouse crowd. I saw Roma in the cinema when it was on commerical release (my second screening, I’d already seen it at LFF) and I was surprised how empty the cinema was in the first week – it was shortly to be on Netflix. So do people really value the big screen experience enough to pay for it, and get off their sofa to their nearest cinema? I hope so, but I’m not confident.

    • The MIT study the other day that suggested that 6 feet or 60 feet makes no difference to the virus sounds a potential death-knell; cinema was struggling to make money before the pandemic, and there’s no way that numbers will confidently return in a comperable way for a long time to come, not to see product they can watch at home. Meanwhile rents, buildings, staff, stock costs will rise, and there’s no income stream of any meaning beyond (rare) streaming licences. Sure, Netflix precipitated the crisis with Roma and The Irishman, but at that point, Netflix were fighting 40 years plus of tradition. That’s been washed away by having cinemas closed for a year plus. Cinema is dying right now, and that suits some people, but like you, I’m not confident that enough is being done to save it…

      • I fear you’re right. Everything is pushed towards streaming, it gives the studios more control over their ‘content’ and their profit, cuts out distributors etc. On another tangent, I saw that Warner Archive might be phasing out blu rays next year, again in favour of streaming.

        I’ve got no measure of public confidence about returning to crowded spaces. But I do suspect confidence (and convenience) and not ‘the science’ will make or break whether a lot of cinemas reopen. The pandemic recovery is complex, depending on risk of Covid variants, vaccine effectiveness etc, but ultimately I could imagine people still won’t be confident even if scientifically it becomes low risk. The Netflixs, Disneys etc of this world could influence this, but I don’t think they want to.

        Given that many cinemas only made money once they’d sold enough overpriced popcorn, even the smallest dent could tip them over the edge. That said, there’s a new multi-screen Picturehouse about to open near me in Finsbury Park, so who knows.

        • Oh, and I meant to say, I thought Nomadland was wonderful. Beautifully bleak, but human and thought provoking. I find it strange when I agree with Oscar decisions (but this is a strange year), but for me it was a close race between Nomadland and Promising Young Woman. It’s just weird that I first saw PYW just over a week ago, and Nomadland around 18 months ago!

          • That is weird, and yes, I saw Nomadland in october, I had to completely redo my review this morning. I think both PYM and Nomadland would have been contenders in any year due to good qualities (and woke credentials), but the awards season became the tail that wagged the dog this year, and doomed these films to be seen on streaming only, and in the maddest of places. Nomadland on Disney+ and PYW on Sky Cinema? Really? Money down the drain, but whose money is it?

            • I took a free trial on NowTV to watch PYW and glancing through what they had I quickly realised there was barely anything else exclusively there that interested me. It’s such an incongruous home. Nomadland on Disney+ is similarly weird, I can’t imagine it sits naturally there unless there’s a baby Yoda hiding in McDormand’s camper van.

              Nomadland does seem to be getting a cinema release – I’ve just bought a ticket at the Genesis cinema as I want to see it again on the big screen before it’s doomed to it’s virtual jail cell.

              • Apple TV is equally mysterious. Great if you want to see Greyhound, but there’s almost nothing else…I hope Baby Yoda is hidden in Nomadland, that would increase it’s appeal for me…!

        • And there’s a few new cinemas supposedly due to open soon, ones planned for years up here. But we’re on the same page, there’s a disaster capitalism’ thing happening here where studios are looking to improve the business moderl by removing elements that the public might love, but which they find archaic. I think you are right to say that a small dent would send cinema chains over the ende, but they’re not looking at a small ding, they’re looking at complete demolition right now.

          Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of streaming for many reasons. But not at the expense of everything else, and that’s where we’re going. No hard copies, no cinemas, just monthly direct debit subsciptions to pre-ordained menus of censored movies. 1984 all over again.

    • Let’s hope so, but the timings are awful; this will be cold potatoes by the time the cinema doors are open…

  13. Yep. The movie business is going through a total phase change.
    I’d completely forgotten about the Oscars. Got on the computer this morning and was surprised they were handed out last night. They didn’t even register with me this year.

    • I don’t blame you. celebrating the diversity of thre awards seaon 2021 is like celebrating the reduced carbon emissions of 2020; it’s an untenable position that will lead to the collapse of the industry, but hey, let’s celebrate a statistic and pretend it’s something we did on purpose.

      • Yeah, and viewership was in steady and pretty steep decline for the five years previous to the pandemic as well. I don’t think the pandemic is the cause of the big changes coming, but it’s an accelerator of trends that were happening anyway. Like the shift away from theatres to home viewing.

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