Movie Review: Nomadland

I like thoughtful movies. I long ago lost any desire for two-hour chase scenes and mind-numbing shoot-em-ups. I like movies with a message, supported by symbols and images to assist in conveying the message. I even enjoy movies with the wrong message. The Coen brothers and Woody Allen are my favorites, and I almost never agree with their message. But sometimes the message is so misguided it pollutes the whole movie. Such is the case with Nomadland.

Frances McDormand is Fern (presumably because a fern will grow almost anywhere), a widow, who, after her husband dies and the recession destroys the town where she lived, puts everything in a storage facility and sets off into the American West in a van, where she will live, stopping for a season at an RV park or national park.

For the first half of the movie we feel sorry for Fern, even though some of the sympathy is lost when she turns down the opportunity for help from the Baptists homeless ministry, subtly signaling she doesn’t really need help.

In one scene, she gathers around at an RV park site with other nomads while a more experienced woman teaches all present the finer points of defecating into a bucket because when you live in a van where else are you going to scat, in the glove box? It was at this point The Wife pulled the rip cord and told me she had had enough. I hung in there though because I knew I hadn’t got the message yet; this was not just a film about the plight of the homeless. There was something else going on here.

Not long after that, Fern’s van breaks down and it costs more than she can afford, so she calls her sister for help. This is the first time we learn Fern has family. So, she takes the bus to her sister’s home, where she is warmly accepted by family, treated to a cookout in the back yard and offered a warm bed. Fern’s sister asks Fern to move in with them so she can get off the nomad circuit, but Fern refuses. Instead, she accepts the $2,300 in cash from her sister to fix her van and leaves town, deciding to return to the nomad life, driving from RV park to national parks, defecating in a bucket. Why? Not because the Great Recession, or bad luck, or dreaded disease has left her with no options but because she chooses to do so.

And it is at this point one sees the utter deceitfulness of the movie; Fern is not living in a van down by the river, like Matt Foley, motivational speaker. She is parking her van against the backdrop of some of the most majestic landscapes in America, enhanced with incredible cinematography and an enchanting soundtrack designed to woo the viewer and infuse into Fern’s nomadic lifestyle a romantic sacredness, while the whole time she is, in reality, defecating in a bucket.

But when you defecate in a bucket instead of a toilet like the rest of the civilized world, it starts to stink, and if you sit around the stench long enough you can actually become nose-blind. In fact, I think that is what the producers of this film hoped would happen to the audience: that by the end they would no longer remember Fern defecating in a bucket and just see the majesty of enlightened vagrancy.

This movie stunk and stinks. For want of a better term, it is stanky. Don’t waste your time. GS

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