Don’t we all want to live our best lives during every waking moment we have? Of course we do, that is an aspiration as classic in the American lexicon as a delicious home-cooked meal after a long day’s work. But what can be done if home isn’t where we expect it to be, and we’re thus uprooted? We’re reluctantly forced to adapt to the best of our ability. Only the hardiest and most confident can really pull through. Enter the realm of the “nomads”, those of a human subculture who’s always moving in search of a better place, wandering about for satisfaction. What we can learn from them may just surprise as much as it does entertain. That’s the objective writer-director Chloe Zhao (The Rider) looks to immortalize and has successfully done so. Welcome to a different kind of America. Welcome to Nomadland.
In this alternate perception of our country, adapted from a bestselling book by Jessica Bruder, we find a kind soul named Fern (Frances McDormand), a widower in her mid-60s hit hard by the now considerably ancient financial recession of the late 2000s. She and her late husband made a rather steady living at a sheetrock plant in Nevada before the collapse. Now it’s 2011, and she is finally ready to put all of that behind her and look for a new stomping ground. As she so eloquently states, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless.” The van she saved up for, bugs and all, is her current home in the interim, hopping from odd job to odd job along the way, primarily in Amazon warehouses and mom and pop diners.
Fern seems lost in the beginning, only to be nudged in the right direction by members of the Rubber Tramps Rendezvous, a likeminded tribe with similar backgrounds, many of whom affected by the crash. Their leader, Bob Wells (playing himself) is certainly the charismatic sort, likable yet rebellious with an edge against consumerism. Thankfully not a Heaven’s Gate kind of cult leader. Over the course of a year, Fern discovers new sights, and just as important, new friends and tutors, meeting cancer survivor Swankie (Charlene Swankie), and experienced sage David (David Strathairn), with whom a deeper romantic connection slowly blooms.
It’s that wide-eyed wanderers’ mentality Fern rolls with, while battling hidden trauma from the life she leaves behind. Through Zhao’s careful directorial approach, we get a sense of her background, touches of which plaguing her mindset while on the road, but otherwise propelling her frustration and determination, the pair working hand in hand. Zhao could not have found a more reliable, or absorbed, performer than with McDormand. In her first role since her fiery, Oscar-winning bonanza in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she has once more stepped into an endearingly postcard-like frame with no lack of elegance. Not to mention, a crazy amount of quiet anxiety, which she hides well, but it still shows in a subtle enough manner difficult to overlook.
In mingling with others, she experiences a finite apprehension toward other humans, her fellow nomads. Not since her late husband’s passing has she been completely comfortable with any sort of a relationship, let alone those with men. The realness and fragility Miss Swankie possess only looks to lower McDormand’s guard, as one example. Her chemistry with the criminally underutilized Strathairn shows further promise, as the inklings of her loss are shared and just why she thrives best in solitude. As we explore more of the subculture and the more Fern walks with the urban wilderness and related outskirts, we continue to gain that sense of self in Fern’s small-town background adapting to a more substantial depth of field. Neither ever out shadows the other, it’s more a coexisting, codependent story parallel.
Not unlike The Rider, Zhao’s previous film invoking a quiet, consequential stride from one world to the next without straying too far from reality, we’re seeing a nearly similar approach, only with a larger scope, and an unashamedly poetic distinction. There is no shortfall of visual splendor to illustrate Fern’s journey, often echoing the tonality of nature familiar to fans of Kubrick or Malick, or even the first-person life event aspect Pennebaker made famous. Zhao is unafraid to weave both aspects together in a cohesive form while in the editor’s chair, as her DoP Joshua James Richards (God’s Own Country) wastes no time or effort putting her vision to lens, every frame composed like a museum quality tourist image. And put to musical prose in the hands of classically trained Ludovico Einaudi (The Water Diviner), his minimalist piano works ratcheting up the emotional stakes without being asked twice.
Bruder’s unique cross-exam of where the American dream has failed the very people who at one time or another sought to benefit has made a perfect translation to the screen, regardless of what size. Zhao, in her sophomore effort, has proven her craft for a second time, tapping into what can knock us down as we look toward creating a better future. And McDormand has made a very winning return in front of a camera, building a complex, yet relatable character, stepping into an otherwise purely unknown way of living.
Equal parts character-driven drama, and shameless documentary, Nomadland sculpts a worthwhile image of pure living, for the moment and for a year, the highs and lows and in-betweens. Nothing is overlooked, everything is caught by the naked eye. We’re there with Fern for this long, exhaustive adventure, from an uncertain beginning to a chokingly bittersweet finale. Fair warning, how Nomadland ends caught me with a lump in my throat. Without question, it is quite easily the greatest film experience of 2020, the best film of this year, perhaps the first truly breathtaking masterpiece in this still very new decade. For what an insane year it has been, and despite the question of whether films like these are needed for our cultural consciousness, this quiet, solitary trek couldn’t be more essential. (A+; 5/5 Horns Up!)
Nomadland recently completed its one-week virtual qualifying run, it will be in wide release February 19, 2021; rated R for some full nudity; 108 minutes.