“It’s a bold movie: confident in its reach, straightforward in its observations of endurance, and generous in its sense of exploration.”
by Ken Bakely
Throughout Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, we learn about the life of Fern (Frances McDormand), and all the tribulations she has recently encountered. She used to work and live in a company town for a construction corporation, but after her husband died and the Great Recession led to the plant’s closure and town’s disestablishment, she took off to the open road. She lives out of her van, traveling the West and taking odd jobs where she can find them – at Amazon shipping centers, in restaurants, at parks – and is part of an amorphous community of people for whom circumstances have led them to similar lifestyles. Many of them are near or at retirement age, but have been left without a safety net or means to retire. Much of the film depicts Fern journeying to new locations and situations. She meets different people and learns their stories, she looks for work to tide her over, and she navigates through the nature of life in this makeshift society. For the most part, there’s relatively little in the way of conventional plotting, and yet the movie remains immediate and compelling all the same. It’s a bold movie: confident in its reach, straightforward in its observations of endurance, and generous in its sense of exploration.
Obviously, McDormand must anchor the film, and she more than rises to the occasion. In Fern, she finds a character who lives with loss and resolve alike, but finds few reasons or occasions to express these feelings out loud. She instead must power forward, and yet McDormand always imparts the person within, even when it seems like she isn’t saying much at all. She and Zhao create a character that feels knowable in a profound way. But perhaps the best testament to this are the interactions that Fern has with other nomads. Nomadland makes extensive use of non-professional actors in these supporting roles. Much like Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, there is a melding of real-world inspiration against a fictitious setting. They’re real-life members of this world, and in usually a short scene or two each, bring to life backstories of varying perspectives and histories, but are all united by the hardships that have led them here and the complex outlooks they have as a result. There’s much to take in here, but it’s to the film’s credit that so little of it feels like the mere relaying of information, or the presentation of McDormand’s character listening to stories free of form or context. Instead, the movie strives instead to make each new person another part of understanding what happens when a socioeconomic system has zipped around or past them, and far more often than not, it succeeds in building that outlook.
Nomadland juggles the character narrative of Fern while trying to expand outwards and substantively depict the lives of the other individuals in the film. There is a separation between the two that forms at some point, and is most starkly contrasted when the character of David (David Strathairn), another nomad, is introduced; he is the only other character played by a professional actor. Their dynamic is clearly different: it’s more shaped in the nature of a narrative, and indeed, it builds the movie towards a somewhat more structured ending than the beginning might have implied. There’s certainly more to be directly gleaned about Fern and her overall outlook from their longer interactions – in what she does and does not reveal. There is then a question of what else the film is trying to be, and if there’s a point where the movie stumbles when trying to piece everything together into a singularly sprawling presentation, it’s here. When so much else is about observing its characters from the rolling nature of its world, moments when the film moves directly inward and looks outward expose a jarring contrast. Not only do the external surroundings feel different, but the impositions of the economic challenges that they all experience seem that much more crushing and worthy of deeper study still – yet the movie can’t quite pull all of that together in its runtime (as an example, I retrospectively wonder why so much and yet so little is made of Fern’s time working for Amazon). It’s hardly a sign of a fundamental flaw on the film’s part, but it does seem to call out for more than the material might be willing to offer.
But Nomadland is still a mighty accomplishment in the end, with Zhao’s assured direction and McDormand’s wonderfully empathetic lead performance leading us as viewers through an enrapturing and graceful vision. Joshua James Richards’s breathtaking cinematography takes tremendous care to make the most out of the wide array of settings the film takes place in – from expansive Western vistas to the small interiors of vans – and not only show, but examine how people fit in and interact within them. Richards thoroughly investigates each space and has a keen eye for making them distinctly fascinating and palpable. His work is emblematic of the film’s best achievement: crafting an open, but carefully introspective look into its depiction of a real-world environment. Zhao’s decision to steer clear of a tightly structured plot pays off, as she never makes us feel like she is telling us how to feel, or pushing the material into an inorganic mold. (For a movie as firmly based on real lives and themes as this one, that could have been disastrous.) Though such a comparison seems obvious, the movie feels less like taut prose and more like lyrics or verse. It draws from an array of emotions that peer through its lead character’s past, but keeps its focus on the questions and experiences that mark her present. It takes us through these settings with a gentle guidance, but this should not be mistaken for a lack of vision. Its strongest moments are abundant with rhythm and life, making for a moving and melancholic work.