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Chloé Zhao
Frances McDormand, David Straithairn, Linda May
Writing Credits:
Chloé Zhao

After losing everything in the Great Recession, a woman embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English Descriptive Audio
Spanish Dolby 5.1
French Dolby 5.1
Castillian Dolby 5.1
German Dolby 5.1
Italian Dolby 5.1
Japanese Dolby 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 108 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date:4/27/2021

• “The Forgotten America” Featurette
• Telluride Q&A
• Deleted Scenes


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Nomadland [Blu-Ray] (2020)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 11, 2021)

Based on a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, 2020’s Nomadland offers a look at Americans who reacted to economic displacement via a more transient lifestyle. Set in 2011, we meet Fern (Frances McDorman), a recently-widowed middle-aged woman who loses her job at a Nevada gypsum plant.

With no job and no family to keep her there, Fern piles into a van and hits the road. She embraces a nomadic lifestyle that leads her around the US Southwest.

As Fern travels, she struggles with finances and keeps herself at arm’s length from those she meets. Though Fern enjoys some “seasonal” friends who also sustain the same transient life, she resists deeper engagements.

This choice that becomes more complicated when fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) shows romantic interest in Fern. With a grandchild on the way, he leans toward a more stable existence and prods Fern to follow him, a choice that she seems reluctant to accept.

That synopsis leaves the impression that Nomadland provides a plot, but it doesn’t. While it follows Fern’s narrative arc, the film seems much more experiential and less focused on a traditional story progression.

On the surface, this makes me want to compare Nomadland to the Terrence Malick oeuvre, and given the ample views of dramatic natural scenery, some of those connections make sense. However, I find myself reminded more of 2006’s Into the Wild more than anything Malick ever did.

Both films focus on characters who disconnect from civilization and traditional choices. They also follow our leads as they meet and interact with a mix of secondary roles.

However, Wild’s Chris McCandless was much younger than Fern, and he also went on a trek with a purpose, as he intended to end up in one specific spot. On the other hand, Fern wanders with no discernible purpose other than to avoid attachment and entanglements.

Wild felt more episodic than the loosely-structured Nomadland. As Chris traveled, we found semi-isolated vignettes about the folks he encountered, whereas Fern’s friends receive less delineation.

As does Fern herself. Indeed, most of the character exposition we find doesn’t occur until the movie’s second half, so we don’t get much detail about our lead until we’ve spent a good 70 minutes with her.

This becomes both a strength and a weakness of Nomadland. As much as I hate to admit it, I do tend to prefer movies that give us more structure than what we find here, so the looseness of Nomadland can frustrate.

As noted, we do eventually receive a bit more grounding, mainly via the character exposition we find during the movie’s second half. Until then, we enjoy a fairly vague notion of who Fern is and what makes her tick.

To some degree, that remains the case even after the character reveals emerge, and I appreciate that – kind of. I won’t say much in the interest of spoiler-avoidance, but even when we get this background, the movie remains loose in terms of plot and resolution.

The latter element makes sense, and I applaud the filmmakers’ refusal to tie up Fern’s arc in a tidy bow. Again, I don’t want to reveal too much about the tale, but suffice it to say that Nomadland doesn’t come with a traditional “ending”.

Which the snooty movie critic in me does appreciate, but the “damn, I like a nice plot” side of me feels somewhat dissatisfied with the vagueness. Granted, given the experiential feel of the rest of the movie, a traditional finale would’ve felt intensely dishonest.

Still, the looseness remains moderately frustrating, as it can lead me to wonder what the point of the project intends to be. Much of Nomadland feels more like an attempt to tell the saga of the rootless than a concrete story of Fern.

Again, this becomes more accurate for the film’s first half, as Fern’s background turns clearer in the second part. Until then, she remains elusive, and we find many scenes that focus on the folks she meets along the way.

Given that Nomadland comes based off a non-fiction book about people who follow this lifestyle, this makes some sense, but it doesn’t always feel like a natural fit. The movie occasionally grinds to a halt so it can allow secondary characters to relate their experiences.

In addition, Nomadland casts some actual “nomads” in these roles, a choice that further blurs lines between fact and fiction. Though I’m not wild about the amount of cinematic real estate the film devotes to the characters, the “actors” blend surprisingly well.

Up against tremendous talents like McDormand and Strathairn, the amateurs easily could’ve come off as stiff and problematic. However – perhaps because they essentially play themselves – they managed to add some flavor and verisimilitude to the production.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but wish the movie stayed more firmly with Fern, as the digressions to the other “nomads” can feel contrived. I get the feeling writer/director Chloé Zhao really wanted to make a documentary about these transient people but compromised with this mix, and the shots of the real people allow her to embrace the former desire.

As always, McDormand offers a strong performance, one that feels natural and not overdone. Given Fern’s saga, it would be easy to milk the role for pathos or other simple emotions, but McDormand keeps the character believable and at appropriate levels of expressiveness.

It helps that Nomadland pairs McDormand with the similarly subdued Strathairn, as they create a good cinematic couple. Dave feels like an extension of Fern who simply chose to go left instead of right, and Strathairn ensures we buy him as a three-dimensional person as well.

Ultimately, I find it hard to pin down my feelings about Nomadland due to the battle between the Snooty Movie Critic and the Lout Who Likes Conventional Movies. As the former, I find a lot to respect and like, but as the latter, I feel more torn.

Still, the Lout remained entertained enough with Nomadland to recommend it. The movie can feel aimless and frustrating, but it presents such an honest portrait of a certain lifestyle choice that it wins in the end.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus C

Nomadland appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.39:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became an appealing presentation.

Overall sharpness worked well. The occasional wider shot betrayed a little softness, but the majority of the movie came with solid accuracy.

No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects materialized, and I saw no edge haloes. Print flaws remained absent.

Colors tended toward amber and teal. Within those constraints, the hues seemed well-rendered, even if they didn’t feel creative.

Blacks looked deep and dark, while shadows offered nice delineation. The movie came with a more than adequate image.

In addition, the film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack seemed perfectly workable for this kind of character piece. Though the movie concentrated on those roles, its various settings allowed it to open up to a decent degree.

This meant road-based shots, those in the Amazon warehouse, and various natural locations created a nice sense of place and space. Nothing here exactly validated your decision to buy an expensive home theater, but the soundfield felt appropriate.

Audio quality worked fine as well. The spare score showed nice warmth and range, as did the low-key effects. Those seemed accurate and offered good clarity.

Speech remained natural and concise. Again, the mix never excelled, but it did what it needed to do for this story.

A few extras fill out the disc, and The Forgotten America runs 13 minutes, 35 seconds. It offers notes from writer/director Chloé Zhao, author Jessica Bruder, producers Mollye Asher and Peter Spears, director of photography Joshua James Richards, and actors Frances McDormand, Bob Wells, Swankie, Linda May, and Derek Enders.

“America” looks at the source book and its adaptation, story and characters, cast and performances, Zhao’s approach to the material, sets and locations, and photography. Despite its brevity, “America” manages to become a pretty informative piece.

From September 11, 2020, a Telluride Q&A lasts 14 minutes, 48 seconds and features a panel with Zhao, McDormand, Swankie, May, Wells and Enders. They discuss story and characters, cast and performances, some production elements, and aspects of the “real nomads” lives. We get a bit of material repeated from “America” but this still turns into a reasonably useful piece.

Finally, we find two Deleted Scenes: “Lunch Interrupted” (2:04) and “A Gift from God” (0:50). “Lunch” offers Fern’s encounter with police after she “camps” in the streets, whereas “God” shows a short chat between Fern and another nomad.

“Lunch” feels redundant since the movie includes other scenes where Fern gets warned she can’t stay where she is. However, it’s interesting because the scene actually calls the character “Frances McDormand” – I guess they planned to loop Fern’s full name later, or perhaps at that point, they intended to actually name her “Fran”. Given that David Straithairn plays “Dave” and “Fern” sounds a lot like “Fran”, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.

“God” offers a “nomad” we don’t see in the final film. That makes the scene moderately intriguing, but it’s not especially memorable otherwise.

A loose character piece, Nomadland can occasionally tax the viewer’s patience. Still, it offers enough depth to make it a fairly worthwhile examination of its subject matter. The Blu-ray brings positive picture and audio along with a smattering of bonus materials. This flick won’t work for everyone, but it seems mostly effective.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.8571 Stars Number of Votes: 7
4 3:
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