As part of the site’s effort to review all of the major film’s nominated for Academy Awards, I ended up watching Nomadland—nominated for Best Motion Picture, Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography, after already nabbing the Golden Globe for Motion Picture and Director—last night. This viewing came immediately on the heels of watching the recently released fully restored version of The Ten Commandments, and since these two films couldn’t be more disparate, this made for an interesting juxtaposition.
Whereas Commandments was an epic, nearly four-hour saga on sweeping scale involving the lives of an entire nation of people with literally thousands on screen at certain moments, Nomadland is a quiet, introspective film that focuses almost
entirely on the life of a single person, Fern (Frances McDormand), with just brief glimpses into the lives of others around her she happens to cross paths with. But between the two movies, Nomadland is the one I find my mind returning to.
The film opens with all the exposition you need to know via a title card that reads:
On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years. By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.
Following the loss of her job, and basically the end of her town—which used to be large enough to have a golf course and airport, we learn—Fern decides to get rid of most of her belongings, move into a van, and travel the country alone looking for work. As she travels, she meets a variety of people who offer bits of help, advice, and wisdom as she
NOMADLAND AT A GLANCE
This Oscar-nominated tale of a solitary wanderer starts out feeling predictable and depressing but turns out to be an affirmative and compelling experience.
The cinematography beautifully captures the wide, sweeping vistas, with deep shadows and contrast as you look out into colorful sunrises and sunsets.
The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix is surprisingly immersive, with nearly constant small atmospheric sounds that put you into each moment.
moves from one seasonal job to the next, slowly working her way around the center of the country and then west.
As Bob Wells—real-life nomadic van dweller and founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous—says, the tyranny of the dollar has turned us all into workhorses, and now that these workhorses are being sent out to pasture, they are banding together to take care of and help each other.
As best I can tell, there is only one other “actor” in the film, David Strathairn, who plays David, a man Fern encounters at one of her Nomad RV destinations, and then crosses paths with again down the road. The rest of the characters are all just “regular” people, many of them actual nomads playing themselves. Spend a moment letting the end credits roll and you’ll see that every character (save Fern) uses their actual name.
I think this is part of what lends the film its authenticity, and helps McDormand to tap into delivering such a real performance. She is playing off the real thoughts and feelings of others, and finding an authentic character. I’m not often taken with the subtleties of the actor’s craft, but there were moments here where I was struck by how powerful and rich McDormand’s performance was. There are a couple of pivotal moments where the anguish and expression on her face help you tap into the anguish of the moment, letting you really feel and empathize with her plight. In another scene, you can see the subtle change in her expression that conveys a realization that dawns on her.
When I’m working on film reviews, I keep a notebook in my lap where I’ll jot down notes. Typically, they are things about audio or video quality I want to remember to mention, but with Nomadland I found myself writing down how the movie was making me feel and think—that’s a pretty powerful difference, and I think what makes this film so interesting.
Some of my observations include: “You can have almost nothing but still have pride and take care of the things you do have,” “Choosing how to live and die on your own terms,” “Journey of self-discovery and exploring and enjoying the simple pleasures of what is around you,”“Making the most of every situation,” “Developing friendships where you can find them and learning to rely on the kindness of strangers,” and “Just because you are down, doesn’t mean you are out.”
I also had a real change of heart towards Fern as I witnessed her journey. Early on, I wrote that she was “living a depressing, solitary existence staying in her van; living, sleeping, eating and spending days working thankless job at Amazon.” But by the film’s end, I changed that view, writing “Fern is a strong, capable, brave, and durable survivor of a woman.”
Director Chloé Zhao—who also wrote the screenplay based on Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century—chooses to keep the camera in close and tight when characters are on screen, making you focus on them and to really see the emotion in their faces and expressions.
Having made the cross-country drive four times myself, you truly see just how wide and vast this nation is, and what seems so small in our digitally, always-connected world is really huge when you have to travel each and every mile of it, and we experience some of this in Fern’s journey. The cinematography does a beautiful job of capturing the wide, sweeping vistas of open plains and ranges, with deep shadows and contrast as we look out into colorful sunrises and sunsets.
At first, I just thought Fern had wanderlust, and maybe that is a part of it, but at the end of the film—a time period that is a little more than a year—she goes back to one of the small towns to return to her seasonal position at an Amazon fulfillment center. I feel it is more just a need to stay on the move and not be trapped in one place and to be able to come and go on your terms.
Shot in 3.2K resolution, the digital intermediate is taken from a 2K source, but I never felt at a loss for clarity or resolution. Images are beautifully clean and sharp throughout with tight focus. Closeups reveal tons of detail, whether the lines and creases in characters’ faces, or individual whiskers and strands of hair, or texture in rocks.
Image contrast, depth, and realism is also enhanced by HDR. Several scenes are filmed around campfires, and these have a rich, glowing golden-red light along with deep, rich shadows. This also helps lend more realism to the frequent vistas as Fern looks off to the horizon.
I wasn’t expecting a lot in the way of surround sound with Nomadland but I was surprised how immersive the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix was. There
are near-constant small atmospheric sounds that put you into each moment. Whether it is the creak and groan of springs and metal inside the cramped environs of Fern’s van, or the sound of traffic, people milling about, or dogs barking off in the distance, or the rush of wind outside, the audio mix does a really nice job of drawing you into each moment. While it is mostly pretty subtle, this background audio gets pretty dynamic as Fern steps onto the floor of the Amazon distribution center, giving you a feel for the noise and bustle of that job. The audio also does a nice job of conveying Ludovico Einaudi’s mournful-sounding piano soundtrack.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy or be as affected by Nomadland as much as I was. I can see this a film that you return to on occasion when you’re searching for something in your life, or maybe just wanting a glimpse into the freedom of other possibilities. Whether or not this will take home the Oscar for Best Picture, I can’t say, but in a year of questionable box-office releases, Nomadland is definitely a high point and worthy of your attention.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.