A woman exchanges her house for a van as she criss-crosses the American West, looking for gig work and companionship amongst fellow travelers.
Directed by Chloe Zhao
Starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn
Review by Jon Kissel
That’s not to say Nomadland is some kind of miserabilist poverty porn. In her first year on the road, McDormand’s Fern makes meaningful friendships, floats down a river in pure tranquility, and is able to share some real intimacy despite the fact that much of her time is spent without another human being around for miles. There is also the deadening quality of walking into an Amazon warehouse before the sun’s up and the cleaning of rest stop bathrooms used by people whose butts can’t find the toilet, but if life is moving from one moment of joy to the next, she was able to find a few of those. Zhao makes a deliberate choice to only cast kind people, to spare Fern the various dangers that might easily have come upon her. If work and income are going to continue to be so piecemeal and infrequent, then Nomadland is supremely optimistic in making it relatively dignified.
This lifestyle is going to be the first choice for some portion of nomads, but that’s not the case for anyone that moves in Fran’s circle. Fran herself would prefer to be with her husband, now dead, back in their company town before it was completely vacated following a factory closure. Die-hard nomad Swankie might’ve just made this into a road trip hobby before her terminal cancer diagnosis, and lifestyle guru Bob Wells was prodded to take to the road to cope with his son’s suicide. Plenty of other stories of loss and disappointment follow the nomads, delineated in some of the film’s best scenes. Nomadland exists not so much for its subculture examination as for its providing a forum to these people. Fern is a sounding board for herself and for the viewer as we hear over and over how the country has failed to make a more traditional kind of life feasible for so many.
Coming off her previous role in Three Billboards, McDormand brings little of the anger or indignation though her Fern’s got reason enough for it. She can’t help but be a little flinty with her haircut and her inability to suffer fools, but her standoffishness is easily set aside. Watching her walk through campsites is hypnotic, and Nomadland contains a half a dozen shots that could credibly accompany her future Oscar In Memoriam reel. It’s great just to watch her listen to a fellow nomad tell their story. No mere audience surrogate, Fern has her own flaws and weaknesses, like a resistance to family and an confrontational nature when she’s out of her comfort zone, though it’s directed at vultures who are regretting they didn’t act more vulture-like in the wake of the financial crisis. The role is McDormand’s best work in this kind of low-key register, and could easily land her a rare third Oscar in the coming months.
One of my favorite scenes in this beautiful film is the astronomy seminar for campers, where the instructor makes the evergreen, capital-R Romantic statement about how human beings are the reassembled matter of exploded stars. Star stuff was reassembling into life before humans, and it’ll continue to do so after. There’s a transitory feeling to Nomadlad in scenes like that or when Fern is walking amongst stones that show the passage of time in their striations. People lived in North America like nomads for a long time, and then they squatted down and planted roots, and now they’re going back on the road. One day, there won’t be a single human left, just abandoned structures like Fern’s old home waiting to be overtaken by the environment. Accumulation and accomplishment isn’t going to make us live a life longer than one of the redwood trees Fern is dwarfed by, but it might bring them to a premature end over our relentless demand for more. For Zhao and Nomadland, the simple question is ‘what if less?’ I could never live as the nomads do, not only out of resistance to physical labor but also out of perpetual indoor kid predilections. However, in plenty of moments and honest conversations, I can see the appeal. Everything ends. Maybe see some sparrow nests before it does. A