Nomadland is about Fern, who recently lost her husband, her job, her home and her town. She becomes a nomad, hunting for work where she can find it and connecting with other people along the way. As Fern travels, she sees the perils, the hardships, and the romance of life on the road, exploring places people seldom tread. The film stars Frances McDormand, Linda May, Swankie, and David Strathairn. The film is written and directed by Chloé Zhao. The film is in theaters, but much more safely is also streaming exclusively on Hulu.
The idea of working hard and working until old age, of building a form of life under the yoke of capitalism is ingrained in the American psyche. This myth of the American Dream is so pervasive that despite our best laid plans, despite that we have the degree, the job, the house, we can lose it all because we are at mercy of a system that deems life a privilege and not an inherent right, that taxes death and penalizes sickness in the name of progress.
All this to say that Chloé Zhao has made a truly beautiful film about loss and about what home can mean. Nomadland is a wonder of natural light and natural performance. Most of the people featured, as in Zhao's previous features, are not trained or professional actors, they're the people met on the road. They have faces and eyes that have seen a lot and have stories to tell.
The face we are gifted most often is the terrifically uninhibited face of Frances McDormand as Fern. Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards are able to show off every facet, line, thought, and trial on Fern's face. The film is contemplative and sparse with dialogue, so we rely on Fern's face to tell us the story, her story, and to show us the true wonder of the world she now inhabits fully realized where she was only occupying space in the place before.
There is nothing that feels overly staged within Nomadland. Zhao and Richards are almost there to simply capture moments. One of the most striking scenes of the film is as Fern walks through the RTR camp at sunrise, she has a grin on her face, a little mischievous, but more than anything its a look that tells us she's in a place where she feels like she belongs. This is a place full of life out in the wilds of the desert. The scene is a terrific tracking shot filled with a million stories at once.
It's contrasted beautifully with a later scene where Fern contemplates Dave's offer. She comes to see Dave at his son's house on the coast. The property is huge, the family kind and loving, but there's something off about wanting to put down roots for Fern. We watch her as she moves in the space, the cage of sorts. Zhao, as her own editor, gives us quick cuts, glimpses at the quiet domesticity of a coastal farm house. With these cuts, we lose the sense of community, the real sense of family that Fern has with those she's met on the road, which adds to her sense of loss.
Frances McDormand is sublime in Nomadland. She's fearless and is completely in tune with who Fern is inside and out. Yet, David Strathairn is so utterly intriguing in the few scenes he's in. He adds the romantic element to the story, the pull of the button down life. He embodies the idea of settling for Fern. Strathairn is able to build something unique, almost naïve in Dave when he's around Fern. I like his channelling of a sort of teen enthusiasm and crush. It's sweet and unexpected.
Chloé Zhao is a filmmaker who dissects the dichotomies of passion and reality better than most filmmakers. She makes films with less of a concrete narrative structure and more an emergence of the emotional core of what that story is meant to represent for all of us. She's a humane filmmaker who brings the beauty of the land into the beauty of a human spirit. Nomadland is an indictment of our worst capitalistic impulses as much as it is a beautiful film about loss and what it can take to carry on. I can't recommend this film enough.