Film Review – Nomadland
Nomadland (2020) plays like a great American novel – one full of heart, compassion and empathy. It’s populated by characters who live on the fringes, who are forgotten by the rest of society but are very much interwoven into the fabric of the country. This is a community of people broken by the economy but are in turn liberated by it. I couldn’t help but be moved by each individual person – how they have chosen to find joy and warmth where others would find desolation and hopelessness. For a short moment of time I was in their shoes, traveling alongside them in their journeys. The best films are the ones that allow us to see the world through another person’s eyes. Here, we don’t only see their perspective, we feel it.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao (adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book), the story focuses a group of people devastated by the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Many lost their jobs and homes. A large portion are elderly, who live without the benefit of a retirement plan. But instead of succumbing to the economic hardship, they decided to take matters into their own hands by packing up their belongings and going on the road. Their residences are wherever they stop to rest, they make money by whatever odd end jobs they can pick up, and their savings are whatever they have stuffed in their vans or RVs. Some adopt this nomadic lifestyle as a new way of living, others do so as one final adventure.
Zhao’s writing and direction weaves among them like a keen and patient observer. Joshua James Richard’s cinematography has a restrained yet lyrical style, accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful, understated score. Scenes are episodic, where we peek into these lives and then step back to let them on their way. There’s a naturalistic, down to earth tone. A lot of this is due to real life people playing themselves. A look at the cast list reveals a large number of them maintaining their real names. Zhao allows plenty of room to express the nuances of this world. We see kids playing in open fields, vendors selling their wares at swap meets, fireside singalongs, survival tutorials, neighbors helping each other, and sunsets dipping down on a desert horizon. All of these little details add up to a significant whole, adding texture to the narrative.
Our protagonist is Fern (Frances McDormand). Fern once lived in a rural company town in Nevada, but the economic crisis all but devasted the area, leaving her with nearly no money to her name. To make matters worse, Fern is also a widow. The death of her husband struck her both emotionally and financially, uprooting her from her home. Not to be deterred, Fern decided to live as a nomad, learning how to self-sustain by others. We follow in her travels, taking temporary jobs at an Amazon factory, as a janitor at a rest stop, at small roadside delis, etc. Along the way, she meets other nomads from all walks of life, creating brief connections before heading out to her next destination.
Frances McDormand has always been great at playing headstrong, determined characters. Fern fits this mold, but McDormand imbues her with a vulnerability that balances out her more steadfast tendencies. This is one of McDormand’s best performances, which is saying a lot given that she’s had so many great ones already. Fern’s life has been one of loss and grief, but McDormand never allows her to wallow in misery. She is always on the go, always on the move, as though she is either running away from her past or running toward a better future.
There isn’t really a “plot” happening here. The only element that comes close is Fern’s dynamic with Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow nomad. Dave is friendly but awkward, and is a possible love interest for Fern, but their relationship is treated with only little importance. The strongest sequences are when Fern simply interacts with other characters, letting them tell their stories to her. A sign of great acting is showing the ability to listen, and McDormand accomplishes that here. We meet an elderly woman who believes her travels are coming close to an end, we meet a man whose son weighs heavily in his thoughts – these are just a few of the examples we get. Zhao lets them give a piece of themselves not just to Fern but to us as the audience. It’s as though she is telling us that these people exist, they live among us, and they matter.
Nomadland does so much while seemingly doing so little. It doesn’t exploit this community by injecting manufactured melodrama – Zhao, McDormand and the rest of the production are much too smart for that. Instead, it sits back and observes, seeking understanding where others would simply ridicule. Every person has a story, every person has followed a path to become who they are. Zhao shows that while we have taken our own individual roads, we have much more in common with one another than we realize. Sometimes, finding the ties that the bind us is all a matter of listening.