“Nomadland,” 2021, directed by Chloé Zhao – 4.5/5 stars
In the hands of a different director, “Nomadland” could have been very boring. On paper, the film is uneventful and slowly meanders from one depressing set piece to another. “Nomadland” isn’t boring, though, nor does it revel too long in its misery. Thanks to beautiful cinematography, moving human performances and touching, unspoken moments between characters, “Nomadland” becomes a simple, powerful piece of art.
The film follows Fern — played by Frances McDormand — a modern day van-dwelling “nomad” who lost her job after the 2008 recession. The first act of the film sets a painfully real tone. Fern begins her story working at a monotonous job at a massive Amazon warehouse, packaging products in a massive, open building characterized by muted greys and blacks. Fern is also a widow and struggles to find other work. Linda May, one of Fern’s coworkers, suggests Fern join her at a nomadic gathering in Arizona. While Fern is skeptical at first, she eventually decides to attend the gathering after another failed attempt to find a job.
This first section of the film notably has no score, emphasizing the quieter moments and forcing the audience to sit with their thoughts, just as Fern does. When music finally does enter, it’s soft, minimal piano melodies, carrying significant melancholic undertones.
The story continues to follow Fern on a journey — both metaphorically and literally — across the American West. She befriends other aging nomads, works various jobs at national parks and navigates uncharted territory. Many of these other nomads that Fern encounters are real nomads outside the world of the film, playing fictionalized versions of themselves. This, accompanied by the authentic tone of the film overall — marked by actual businesses like Amazon and Wall Drug — makes the film seem extremely genuine, almost akin to a documentary.
This is also helped by McDormand, who brings a subtle and powerful eloquence to the role. Fern is an incredibly distinct character — unflinchingly dedicated and brave but also stubborn and withdrawn. McDormand telegraphs all these characteristics with softness and believability, and her performance is ultimately what allows the film to shine in its brighter moments, as well as truly devastates the audience at its low points.
One would be remiss to go without mentioning the film’s truly stunning cinematography, documenting incredible sunsets and sunrises in some of the country’s most beautiful national parks. This use of light and color also helps offset the film tonally, giving the story a sense of wonder and hope that would be missing without it.
First-time viewers might be inclined to say “Nomadland” is about the way American capitalism mistreats older members of our society, but the film’s message seems to run a little deeper than that. While it is very much about struggling to get by in a crumbling system, it’s worth noting that Fern is at least partially making a choice to live in the way that she does. Many of her friends and family offer her more permanent places to stay, but she declines, seeking a life more separate from the bulk of modern civilization. This isn’t to say that some aren’t forced to live in their cars or vans — the characters in the film say as much. What’s clear, though, is that Fern’s choice to live in her van is a deliberate inclusion in the story, one that puts more emphasis on a broader idea of loneliness, grief and interpersonal exploration.
“Nomadland” explores harsh truths of life but does so in the most beautiful and touching way possible. Its complex themes and characters, combined with a straightforward plot, minimal soundtrack and striking scenery, allow for a thought-provoking and memorable viewing experience.