Traditional beauty is nowhere to be found in filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary Nomadland which was adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 award-winning book, Nomadland. There are no breathtaking shots of majestic sites like the Grand Canyon, and the people we meet rarely bathe and are not concerned with fashion. Despite this, Nomadland can best be described as one of the most beautiful and unique cinema experiences in years. Ms. Zhao provides a look at America’s roads and landscapes through the eyes of folks that society tends to overlook.
A significant reason this film works is the incredible performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, a strong woman who refuses to let grief suffocate her. Her hometown of Empire, Nevada was erased from existence in 2011 when the local plant was shut down, resulting in the town’s zip code being discontinued a few months later. As if her town disappearing wasn’t enough, Fern’s husband passed away, leaving her with little evidence of a life to which she had grown accustomed. We watch as Fern packs up her van and hits the road. Her first stop is working at an Amazon distribution center during the holiday rush season. She lives out of her van as part of the company-sponsored CamperForce program. When the season is over, Fern hits the road again. We slowly get a feel for this subculture of van-dwelling nomads, young and old, who travel the country’s backroads and keep to themselves, except when they gather to form a temporary community of similar-minded individuals. Fern makes it clear she is “house-less,” not “homeless,” and has nicknamed her customized vehicle, ‘Vanguard.’
Fern thrives on her solitude, but is also friendly enough to connect with others wherever she stops driving or works. She joins the annual gathering of Bob Wells’ community/tribe, and her other odd jobs include acting as a “host” at one of the stops, shoveling sugar beets at a farm, and cooking/cleaning/serving at the famous Wall Drug Store in South Dakota. Along the way, she befriends Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow nomad whose dreams don’t necessarily coincide with Fern’s. Respected actor Strathairn is the only other familiar face in the film, other than McDormand. Non-professional actors fill the scenes, most of whom are real-life nomads kind enough to share their ways in front of a camera.
Director Zhao has reunited with Joshua James Richards, her cinematographer on the excellent 2017 film, The Rider. Their work here is a masterclass in taking us into a world most of us know little about, and doing so in a way that combines both the intimacy of people with the scale of nature. Even the sequence where Fern revisits her past life is quietly emotional and done with grace, while also packing a punch. The music from Ludovico Einaudi is exceptional in its complementary nature and ability to leave the quiet moments unspoiled, while also driving our empathy and emotions. This is an extraordinary film with a superb performance, and one that is entertaining, while also proving thought-provoking at a time when so many of us are questioning the sustainability of our current societal structure, and wondering just who will toss a rock on the fire in remembrance.
Nomadland is available in theaters and on Hulu.