I actually saw this one a few months ago at Twin Cities Film Fest. It was my pick of film of the month in October and also earns a spot on my Top 10 Best list of 2020. Nomadland is about a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) who lost everything in the Great Recession sets off on a journey through the American West with her van. The last film of Chloé Zhao that I watched, The Rider, showed a slice of life from a world I’m not familiar with and this time she showed life of modern-day nomad.
The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder. The book documents stories of dispossessed older Americans (mostly 50s-60s) who face the largest reversal in retirement security in American history and ends up becoming workampers — working while living out of an RV or a tent. Fern is one of those people, having lost her husband, her job at a US Gypsum plant, and ultimately her old-company town Empire, Nevada, which died with the factory closure in 2011.
Now, the film doesn’t delve too much into the background of the economic crisis or the capital/government greed that causes them, but it explores a human story told through the perspective someone who choose to live that life. It seems that even though it’s obviously a tough life uprooting oneself into living in a ratty van, sans the comfort most house-dwellers take for granted, Fern and her fellow nomads seems content, even happy living this way. There’s a memorable scene of Fern saying “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” with a defiant glee when friends offer her a place to stay. The film shows her working various jobs, most notably Amazon warehouses, and at times struggling to even get seasonal work. It seems like a lonely life, but there is actually a close-knit community that sustain them and this film actually features real nomads, Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, who are featured in Bruder’s book. They become friends and mentors for Fern.
The film features a quiet yet intricate performance from McDormand, who apparently did some method acting for the role as she actually slept in a van used in the film for a while. Most of the time she only gets to act with her expressions as there are countless of shots of her gazing into the vast, beautiful landscape… and a brief shot of her serenely floating in a pool of water stark naked (I wonder if that’s what garnered this film an R rating?!). I find Fern as a fascinating character, but also frustrating and hard to warm up to, not sure if this is because the film never allowed us to really get to know her.
During her journey, Fern meets a fellow workcamper named Dave (David Strathrain, the only other prominent actor in the film) and the two strikes a tentative friendship. They end up working a part-time job together, but when Dave’s son visits him, Dave ends up staying with him in a large house on the country. Dave invites Fern to join him and later we see Fern come and visit him. It’s perhaps the only time we see Fern sleeping in a bed inside, but it’s interesting to see that she’s no longer comfortable living within the confines of a house. McDormand’s nuanced performance conveys the feeling that living day to day in the same place, same environment, despite all the comfort, would actually infringes on her sense of freedom.
Though not much happens in this film, there’s actually a lot to mull over and reflect upon. It made me think of certain aspects of my own life and others close to me, what I would do if I were in her situation. The scene of her walking in her old company town that’s now desolate is quite heart-wrenching. I was curious if Fern would actually consider Dave’s invitation and start a new life again as she once did… living with a new family (albeit an adopted one) and live in a real home again. The finale shows Fern’s decision without much words being spoken, but yet it packs a punch. Nomadland is truly a graceful, poetic, reflective film, boasted by stunning cinematography by DP Joshua James Richards and beautiful, serene music by composer Ludovico Einaudi.
After watching this, I’ve become even more of a fan of Chloé Zhao’s remarkable storytelling style. It’s so refreshing that Zhao features a woman over 50 in a leading role, which is a rarity given Hollywood’s issue with ageism. I can’t wait to see Eternals, especially after hearing Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige quote saying that her pitch was the best he’s ever heard, apparently it’ll be a very big, sweeping, multi-millennial-spaning story (per this article). So even if you’re not typically into slower-paced dramas, I still highly recommend Nomadland. It’s a study of restraint in its minimalism, almost stripped bare of frills in terms of special effects or unnecessary dialog, but done to great effect.
Have you seen NOMADLAND? Well, what did you think?