Written and directed by Chloé Zhao
A woman, Fern, after losing her husband and the town in which they lived their life together, packs herself and everything about her into a van, and sets off across both country and existential terrain.
Frances McDormand’s performance as Fern is Nomadland, a film about one woman’s coming to terms with grief and her handling of it. It’s an intense character study of a person who is hard and knotted like a twisted branch that’s been weathered by just about everything the elements possess, yet hangs in there with a sturdiness the facade belies.
It’s a lonely film that starts with a literal loss of community, as Fern’s Empire is a mining town lost to the recession. She criss-crosses the United States as a nomad in her van (“I’m not homeless, I’m just house-less,” she tells a child she used to tutor), living where most of the world does not: at the side of the road, in parking lots, in barren stretches of gravel. America’s nature is rapturous to behold, but it also makes a person small. For someone who’s already feeling cut off, it can seem as vast and as alienating as outer space.
McDormand’s inherent resilience to both adversity and pity gives Nomadland its understated power, as it becomes clear the film’s not about the hardships of economic anxiety brought on by the gig economy and boom-and-bust cycles, but rather the gauntlet of living outside the life our society has convinced us is the goal: partnerships, rooted communities, real estate.
Zhao’s penchant for observation and gradual revelations makes for a pensive film moved along by quiet moments. Still, even if it’s like a pale cloud stretching out across a dusky sky, it’s a more expressive film compared to Zhao’s last, The Rider, where cowboy masculinity made for a taciturn protagonist struggling in silence only to burst out in fits when fear of what’s ahead becomes too much to bear.
Nomadland shares The Rider’s interest in existential post-partum, as Brady Blackburn tried to come to terms with his rodeo days being over. Fern, similarly, is letting go, but must convince both herself and the world as she goes along that this new way is right for her.
In The Rider, Brady and his buds speak of being “cowboy tough” in order to handle the pains brought on by dives into the dirt and vengeful horse hoofs. If there’s a similar concept of “nomad tough” in Nomadland, it denotes a person’s self-reliance in matters both material and existential.
Zhao’s treatment is not overwrought, but lithe, yet crisp. It’s not as crystallized a film as The Rider, and perhaps not possessive of the same elegiac staying power as the tale of Brady Blackburn, but it will find a place in history as a poetic, not polemic, take on a capitalistic society that grinds people to dust every day.