The motivating interest in Chloe Zhao’s new film is that the audience will be swept away to the rural and mythological landscape of the American West. A place that doesn’t exist because it has been bleached to a level of fantasy on par with Spielberg’s Kinder films with the high moral clarity of The Lord of the Rings. It is an escapist world for washed-up white liberals who still think it’s August of ’69.
The central character is Fern. Just Fern. No last name is required in the mythologically self-aware dreamscape engineered before our eyes in pretty (yet blandly self-aware) Vimeo cinematography by the fully named Joshua James Richards. It is a post-modern, re-articulation of a John Ford epic with a sprinkling of spiritual intention (circa Terrence Malick) topped off with a soured NPR tone. In short, it is a perfectly calibrated film designed to appeal to its core audience (White, middle-aged liberals). Do I smell Oscar bait?
If the conversation around this movie was contained to the core audience, the way we discuss “Faith-based”, “LGBTQIA+”, “Black Cinema”, or simply another “Male Action” movie…there would be less of a dilemma. But that’s not how this film is discussed.
As an “informed” audience we are sold a narrative that this film is a nuanced, modern western of the highest ideals. It’s representations of poor Whites, Indigenous Americans, and one Black woman, is a lost opportunity for real cinematic exploration as Fern keeps blocking the view. McDormand is an astute, emotionally present actor, with a pinch of L.C. Wonderland whimsical, but that’s the rub with Nomadland: It is a fantasy (and Empire, Nevada, is no Rabbit Hole).
Enter Baudrillard. When asked about his thoughts regarding The Matrix (inspired by his work Simulacra and Simulation), his reply was brief and insightful to the problem of cinema in the United States, and our culture of capitalist-realism: “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce.” Another way: A representation of a pre-approved representation by a system. Yet another way: Propaganda.
If we listen to the trumpeting herald of our most prodigious cinema award institutions we are to think otherwise. Nomadland is being celebrated as a leap forward in the liberal illusion of progress. A Chinese American Woman following in the footsteps of John Ford and the passing of the godhead mantel of Spiritual Cinema embodied in the work of Terrence Malick. This is Madison Avenue at its finest.
The most glaring hypocrisy within Nomadland is its complete obfuscation of Trump supporting “deplorables”, the very reason we were graced by the reality TV host broadcasting from the oval office the last four years. It is that difficult dissonance that Zhao chooses to ignore, replacing it instead with a feel-good fantasy about Clintonite yuppies who think they can bring back the spirit of revolution that was the promise of 1960’s America. NEWSFLASH: No. The looming imagery of AMAZON, where Fern occasionally works, a constant reminder of consolidated capitalist power dating back to the neo-liberal policies of the ’80s and perpetuated under Bush, Clinton, Bush 2.0, Obama®, and Heir Drumpf. Do we see a consistency here? The film is not a work of cinematic art that represents economic and social realities of America’s underclass. It’s a self-righteous dreamscape that reconforms and omits reality in favor of a Hallmark card (accented by Ludovico Einaudi’s awkward score) designed to appeal to a slice of pie that is way past its expiration date.