America’s obsession with work culture has created a world where people cannot live without a job both economically and psychologically. They are forced to work until the end of their life and not to experience true “free-time” or to live out dreams they had outside of the job realm – or, as a character in Nomadland puts it, to set out on the sailboat in their driveway, just when they get the chance. It has been stressed how important it is to work, not because it would provide satisfaction, but because it would provide a purpose in the eyes of society; because it is a selfless act that can help the country grow and prosper economically. But, as we see in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, the corporations and jobs will so quickly forget about you once you are no longer needed, and you will be forced to go your own way, fend for yourself, no matter how much time and passion you’ve given.
There’s some prescience in the shots alone: seemingly comparing the symmetrical, idealistic facets of the Amazon workplace with those of the mountain ranges, the fields, and the rocks of the American landscape. It’s as if the corporations have been developing their own faux-inspired naturalism to bind these workers to them – to artificially create a sense of belonging to the world they are forced into. The people, as Fern says, need work, and they love it. The repetitive day-to-day actions are the comfort they seek – the provider of the money necessary to keep on going. This is what the film does well. It criticizes American working life and shows the toll that this norm will cause. It takes characters, real and fictional, and gives them speeches that elucidate this idea – Swankie hoping to get to Alaska, Bob talking about his late son, and the sailboat scene I mentioned earlier.
But along with those positives came the not-so-positive. For a film so willing to criticize the toll of American work culture, it seemed all too ambivalent with the corporations that lead to this downfall. The portrayal of corporate giants like Amazon made it almost feel like a moment where friends and family could gather, make some money, have lunch, and laugh. Then there are the overly sentimental moments. In a film already so bleak and sad, characters should have been able to speak for themselves. Instead, while listening to a speech I am already invested in and teary-eyed over, the overly-melancholy piano sneaks back in as if trying to tell me – hey, you should be sad here. Or the narrative sentimentalism such as Swankie reaching Alaska, viewing the birds, and dropping an egg back into the water. And Fern momentarily reuniting with the boy she once lent her lighter to. Those moments seemed to glorify the purity of the lives these nomads were living, which of course while this is not a bad way to live if that is what you want, it is a way forced upon them, once again, by the apathetic, bloodthirsty culture we are all used to. It almost felt like an apology to the corporations, telling them – yes, you did us wrong, but thank you, for we have discovered something better because of it.
Nomadland left me with mixed feelings. The movie is expertly crafted with cinematography almost perfectly capturing the natural beauty of US deserts and forests and the geometric symmetry of the workplace, all while framing the comparatively tiny people within these shots. The music, when not trying to double-down on a speaker’s emotion, fits within the story and creates evocative scenes that left me stunned. And of course, the characters within these scenes, from professionals like McDormand to the real nomads, all do justice to the story and the themes they are attempting to portray. It is a beautiful movie on both a narrative and filmmaking level. If it weren’t so unwilling to criticize further and more willing to let the character’s emotions come out on their own, it would have been unarguably better.
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