Updated: May 24, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Frances McDormand won her third Best Actress Academy Award as 61-year-old Fern, a widow who lost her job after the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada closed down.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy; 2020; R for nudity; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “The Forgotten America” making-of documentary
ONE OF THE most effective ways to rid ourselves of prejudices or stereotypes is by getting to know one or two people who are part of whatever group it is we’ve prejudged. So, for those of us with preconceived ideas about the kinds of people who travel the country, working at menial seasonal jobs, or who don’t live in what we would traditionally call a “home,” “Nomadland” will definitely open your eyes and, more than likely, your hearts.
The multiple award-winning film – including an Oscar sweep for Best Picture, Director, and Actor (Frances McDormand) – was inspired by a book by Jessica Bruder. It’s about people she came to know, members of a growing number of predominantly older Americans, forced by economic circumstances, or in some cases choosing, to live like first-world nomads in their homes on wheels.
McDormand read Bruder’s book, bought the film rights, and took it to Chinese screenwriter/director/editor Chloé Zhao (“The Rider,” “Songs My Brother Taught Me”), who adapted some of the stories of the real “nomads” from the book. Zhao centered the film around a fictional character named Fern, exquisitely under-played by McDormand, incorporating elements from her own life. Several other professional actors appear in the film, such as David Strathairn – but it’s the non-pros who provide the backbone, and by whom viewers will surely be most charmed.
(1-3) Fern decides to leave most of her belonging at an Empire storage facility and hits the road in her small van.
With exquisite cinematography of western landscapes (especially during the golden hour) by Joshua James Richards, and plenty of genuinely moving moments, “Nomadland’s” only flaws lie in the somewhat rosy picture it paints of a life that certainly poses some dangers and downsides to its elderly members – especially of solitary women such as Fern. And it’s Fern’s story that’s often hard to buy. We learn that she hit the road to look for work after her husband’s death, followed by the closing of the gypsum factory that employed the residents of the small Nevada town where they lived.
We also discover that Fern once had a career as a teacher, which would make her highly employable, and not likely to prefer jobs like cleaning campground toilets, harvesting beets, or boxing packages in an Amazon warehouse. Perhaps if her decision to be a nomad had been presented as a phase in her grieving process, it might have accounted for her complete rejection of safety and stability, despite a couple of very generous offers she gets. That noted, “Nomadland” is a thoroughly enjoyable, even rewarding, film that richly deserves the almost universal praise it received.
Before shooting “Nomadland” on Richards’ favorite digital camera, the compact Arri Alex Mini 3.4K (2.39:1 aspect ratio), he and Zhao packed up a van in 2018 and traveled around the American West scouting locations for the film. It became their third collaboration since meeting at NYU film school. Now, they’ve become one of Hollywood’s hottest power couples, living in a small town outside of L.A. with their two dogs and three chickens.
Sadly, the digital files were only mastered in 2K, making the resolution difference between the Blu-ray and 4K (digital only) minimal, with the slightest edge to the 4K version. A TRUE 4K master would’ve taken Richards’ dramatic handheld Oscar-nominated photography to a completely different level.
(1) Fern and seasonal workers at an Amazon warehouse take a lunch break during the heavy holiday buying season. (2) Fern and non-actor Linda May work a jigsaw puzzle at the RV park laundromat. (3&4) Fern hits the road again and lands in Arizona and listens to real-life nomad Bob Wells, who plays himself, and is considered a sort of spiritual leader to the nomads. (5&6) The exquisite photography captured by British cinematography Joshua James Richards during “magic hour” as the sun sets on the Arizona desert.
The HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading does give the visuals a much-needed onscreen pop. Since much of the film is captured at the “magic hour” – from the cool blues at daybreak to the warm hues at twilight – the expansive color palette and contrast levels from shadows to highlights provide a nice cinematic feel.
The Blu-ray features the uncompressed six-channel DTS-HD Master, while digital is coded with a slightly compressed Dolby Digital Plus. The dialogue-driven storyline has plenty of ambient environmental sounds bouncing around the room, while the subtle and moving score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi is nicely balanced. The simple music of a piano, violin, viola, and cello are actually samples from previous work he composed after a seven-day hike in the Italian Alps. Zhao repurposed the music inspired by nature for “Nomadland.”
Bonus features (disc & digital) include a couple of deleted scenes and a Q&A that took place in a parking lot – thanks to COVID – at the Telluride Film Festival. The making-of documentary, “The Forgotten America,” is especially worthwhile. In it, Zhao says she has “always been very interested in nomadic life and being on the road … (Bruder’s) book showed how interesting the lives of the people are.”
Zhao wanted “to understand why this life on the road draws all these colorful characters into it … I wanted to seamlessly integrate the stories of these characters that Jessica met over her years of research.” Bruder, who also served as a “consulting producer,” notes the retirement-aged people she got to know felt that “the world they’re living in now isn’t the one they grew up in. … It’s incredible to see their resilience in the face of all the challenges out there,” adding, “Writing about subcultures helps people connect with what they don’t know.”
(1) Non-actor Charlene Swankie plays herself, with Linda May and Fern as they enjoy corndogs at an RV tradeshow. (2-4) The lonely life living in a van as Swankie and Fern are the only ones left after the majority of the nomads and snowbirds have left Quartzsite, Ariz. Each year around 2 million visitors, mostly van dwellers flock to its trade shows and the 70-plus RV parks, and federal campgrounds in the region during the winter months. (5) Actor David Strathairn plays Dave a nomad who takes an interest in Fern.
Bruder sees Fern as “the narrative thread that ties all of “Nomadland” together. Her arc leads us through the land of the nomads.” She admires the way “Chloé and Frances were able to link the stories together like beads on a string.”
McDormand discusses collaborating with Zhao in the creation of her character: “We brought things from my life into Fern’s life,” including using McDormand’s own family photos in one scene. Zhao says she admires McDormand’s “ability to connect with another human being – whether professional or not – that’s just Fran!”
Cinematographer Richards talks about the “many different environments” he shot in, and that he was “trying to discover life through the characters’ eyes.” Zhao says she “let the people guide them to locations and experiences.” Real-life nomad Bob Wells, who plays himself in the film and is considered a sort of spiritual leader to the nomads, talks about his own life: “I was doing exactly the opposite of what society tells me and, for the first time, I was happy.”
Zhao explains the theme of “Nomadland”: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve lost everything. In solitude, we can find ourselves … There’s a way to persevere and feel hope at the end.”
— Peggy Earle
(1) During the summer Fern and Linda May run Cedar Pass Campground near Badlands National Park in South Dakota. (2) Fern and Dave play hide and seek at Badlands Park. (3) The tight sleeping quarters in Fern’s van. (4) She heads to her sister’s home in California to get money to fix the van.
(1) Fern and her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith). (2&3) Fern finds Dave who’s a new grandfather and lives with his son and daughter-in-law. (4&5) Fern finds freedom along the rocky coastline.