Movie Review: Nomadland
By Matthew Huntley
March 5, 2021
“Nomadland” is a direct and honest film that resonates because of the way it simply allows itself to be and for the way it portrays a lifestyle that simply is. As the name indicates, it is about living as a nomad, which, in this day and age, can involve driving and parking from one place to another; taking various odd jobs to make ends meet; learning new skills we might have assumed were lost to automation or performed by someone other than ourselves; making new friends the old-fashioned way, which is to say in person; rationing resources; and repeating this cycle throughout the year in order to survive. A nomadic life can be both disheartening and joyous, but then again, can’t every life?
What initially draws us into this film’s raw and organic world is its teaching us about nomadism, which, for most viewers (just as it did for me), will render both impressive and eye-opening, not to mention scary and exciting. I felt enlightened as the film taught me just a few of the things it takes to subsist as a modern-day nomad, even though all humans used lived this way millions of years ago.
It may seem like common knowledge, but life as a wanderer isn’t easy. Supplies can be limited; money can be tight; temperatures can drop; vehicles can break down; tires can get flats; feelings of isolation and desolation can be commonplace (as can feeling smothered); and one can easily get desperate and angry during hard times.
“Nomadland” simply introducing us to this way of life, which is often handled by the real-life nomads who appear in the film, alone makes it valuable and, in many ways, fascinating. But what keeps us engaged is how the film regards its subject and people with such balance and straightforwardness. It neither promotes nor discourages nomadism but rather tells an observant and essentially impartial story that seeks to show and tell us about the itinerant lifestyle so that we might learn from it and reflect upon it. It’s rare for a film to be so naturally neutral yet so detailed and perceptive.
Of course, our instincts and experiences with Hollywood narratives tell us there should be more to it, that there must be a catch. There isn’t. Writer-director Chloé Zhao gently and unaffectedly informs us of the characters and their ways of life through calming imagery, patience and genuine human behavior. Her camera makes it a point not to be intrusive, and yet she isn’t trying to be rebellious by not letting her screenplay, based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” succumb to contrived plot developments or trite messages. On the contrary, it’s as if conventions or clichés of any kind never even entered Zhao’s purview. Like the nomads we encounter in the film, Zhao simply wants to pass on knowledge so we can grow from it.
The story opens on a somber note. It’s 2011 and the city of Empire, Nevada has recently collapsed under economic hardship. Empire is where the film’s heroine, Fern (Frances McDormand), and her late husband, Bo, lived and worked most of their adult lives, but in the wake of US Gypsum shutting down its sheetrock plant, the city became nothing short of a ghost town and its lone zip code was discontinued. Fern, who doesn’t have children, has no choice but to empty her storage locker and hit the road in her run-down, white conversion van. From here on out, her van is where she’ll eat, sleep, use the facilities, and do her best to conserve space. “I’m not homeless,” she tells friends who ask her to come live with them, “I’m houseless.”
Like many nomads, Fern adapts and moves around the country according to the seasons, from Arizona to South Dakota. She finds work wherever she can, including an Amazon fulfillment center, national parks, and fast food restaurants. She buys and sells only the essentials, often from fellow travelers, and parks her van wherever she’s allowed and can remain the most inconspicuous.
One of the interesting things about Fern as a character is we feel for her but we don’t necessarily feel sorry for her. Even though she’s on the road, she has the option to live with others, be they friends, her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) and brother-in-law George (Warren Keith), or another itinerant she meets at different times along the road named Dave (David Strathairn), who expresses a romantic interest.
But settling down and being beholden to others, either financially or emotionally, are burdens Fern no longer wants to bear. We suspect her husband’s death has made her cautious about getting too close to people, but we also take her for a strong, independent woman who can be stubborn and is a loner at heart. Fern is in her mid-60s and feels the urge to explore, even if that means being broke and by herself.
As one of the film’s producers, McDormand has said she had her heart set on realizing this project for years and both her and Zhao’s love and fascination for the material are felt throughout (in preparation for filming, the two navigated the country in vans for months, just as Fern does). In many ways, McDormand is simply playing herself on-screen, having told her real-life husband (filmmaker Joel Cohen) that when she turned 65, she wanted to change her name to Fern and hit the road in her RV. But whether or not McDormand actually had these ambitions is beside the point. What matters is she still gives her stalwart character a spirit, depth and curiosity that make her unique and identifiable. McDormand is so fitting and dedicated that we’ve no reason to think of anyone else in the role; she is Fern and she brings us along on her journey.
However, this isn’t to say she invited us. In fact, Fern makes it clear she doesn’t always want to be living this way. With all its logistical hurdles, emotional upheavals, and moments of loneliness and self-doubt, living as a nomad can make one prone to pain, suffering and heartache. But it can also spur many pleasures, close friendships, and an appreciation for things we often take for granted, such as the outdoors, the night sky, a comfortable chair, and bestowing knowledge onto others.
In other words, nomadic living is still living, just a different kind than most of us are used to. This notion, I think, ties into the film’s greater message, which is that nomadism is neither better nor worse than a more traditional, settled existence. Each has their pluses and minuses but it’s important we recognize both as worthy in their own right and appreciate that life, in any sense, is precious and transitory, so we should make the most of it.
“Nomadland” isn’t biased, cynical or pushy. Fern faces hard times just like the rest of us, but the film isn’t interested in how she got to where she is, only how she handles her present situation. It doesn’t want to polarize us over such heavy topics as capitalism or corporate malfeasance (the screenplay mentions these but only minimally). Instead, it focuses on the idea that no matter what life tosses our way, we should be able to rely on others and ourselves to be open-minded and offer help and guidance to navigate it as best we can.
In addition to having a refreshing, apolitical agenda, “Nomadland” serves as a consummate cinematic experience. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography, Ludovico Einaudi’s music (featuring pieces taken from previously recorded albums), and Zhao’s editing collectively put us in a state of tranquility. The film isn’t slow so much as it’s not in a hurry and watching and listening to it, we get the impression Zhao wanted us to be able to either close our eyes or plug our ears and still experience moments of great sensation. Through stunning wide and long shots of rich, infinite landscapes; soft, melodic piano chords; and humans gathering around one another to learn and share, the film make us feel uncommonly relaxed and welcome.
I could go on, but the simple truth is that “Nomadland” is a rich, special film that speaks to us, and we listen to it. It’s only a few scenes into it that we relinquish our expectations of what we think it’s going to be about and simply let it be about it what is about, and the fact that we relish in what it’s about speaks to the care and attention with which its makers have manifested the material. After watching it, I feel I know more about nomadism, which is great and I’m grateful for it, but I’m even more thankful for how “Nomadland” kept me present throughout. I watched, listened and thought about only what was there, right in front of me, and if the film advocates any kind of lifestyle, it’s one in which we make only what’s in front of us the priority.