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‘Nomadland’ Review: Our gorgeous, desolate country

Frances McDormand headlines a haunting tale of American individualism and isolation.

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'.
(Image: © Searchlight Pictures)

Our Verdict

'Nomadland' sits with you and leaves you to contemplate the fall of an empire.

For

  • 🏭Amazing performance from Frances McDormand.
  • 🏭Documentary-style interviews with real nomads brings authenticity.
  • 🏭Gorgeous sweeping cinematography.

Against

  • 🏭Might be too immersed in the lives of its characters to be critical of their conditions.

Chloé Zhao is shaping up to be one of our most gifted humanist directors, as is demonstrated in her latest film, Nomadland. Very few filmmakers could harness the raw emotional power of the collapse of American Industry and turn out a film that speaks to genuine experience rather than platitudes reaching for the good old days or a pandering repackaging of human lives into moralistic messaging. No, Nomadland is a film that dwells in your psyche, introducing you to transient friendship and effervescent scenery, immersing you in the beauty of existence while demonstrating the lengths people must go to experience it.

In the aftermath of the 2011 economic recession, a company town called Empire collapses when its factory closes, causing the residents to lose their livelihood. Fern (Frances McDormand) is one such refugee, traveling the Midwest in a van that she has progressively modified to act as a mobile domicile. Going from seasonal job to seasonal job, she eschews the trappings of life under one roof in favor of retaining a measure of her own independence, even as the lifestyle threatens to take even what little she has left, as restrictions on where she can park and a lack of social supports mean that she and wanderers like her must learn extreme self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

McDormand is the centerpiece around which this revolves, and Fern is a magnetic personality, even when she is simply sitting in her van, quietly wearing a Happy New Year tiara, pondering a photo of her deceased husband, or shitting into the 5-gallon bucket that serves as her toilet. She’s a woman who likes people and is more than happy to meet with strangers for conversation, trading of wares, and life advice that proves essential to survival, but she’s also reticent for those interactions to be more than fleeting. A recurring thread through the film is the temptation of a fellow van-dweller played by David Strathaim, who develops a crush on Fern and clearly wants to have a connection with her that she can’t seem to embrace. Her existence is a lonely one, but it’s lonely by choice, perhaps in ways that not even she understands as her need for independence overshadows the rest of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Yet rather than placing Fern in a conventional arc of self-discovery, Nomadland aspires for something more episodic, focusing in on the conversations she has with various mentors and mentees who travel the roads in vehicles they claim are not markers of their homelessness. The naturalistic performances of real-life nomads like Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells are almost documentary in nature, educational with regard to real experiences while McDormand simply listens, but with an emotional power that comes from baring the rawness of the lifestyle whole. This is cinéma vérité at its most potent, smuggled into a film that blurs the line between fiction and reality by putting you directly in communication with the experiences it depicts.

The other looming force over the film is cinematographer Joshua James Richards, whose sweeping landscape shots deserve to be seen on the largest screen and in the darkest room possible. As cliché as it is to claim that America is portrayed as a character, Nomadland earns its moniker by placing McDormand in the loneliest locales, gorgeous in their majesty but haunting without the presence of another person for miles. It gives the sense of a land almost untainted by human presence, where the only way to truly experience it is to be forced out of a society so civilized that it does nothing to help those who gave their lives to its industry. There’s an enormity to this country that will drown you in your emotions if you let it, which this film meditates on to great effect.

If one can fault Nomadland with anything, it’s that it may be too uncritical of the conditions that created the world it portrays. Online monolith Amazon is prominently displayed as a provider of seasonal warehouse work to nomads in the holiday season, which feels like a strange bit of product placement in an adaptation of a journalistic book that spends most of its pages being harshly critical of the working conditions in those warehouses. It’s also wistful for times past in a way that is in keeping with Fern’s character, but is maybe a little too myopic without context for why that past fell to pieces in the first place.

Even so, Nomadland is a heartbreaking character study, of the fictional Fern, of the real nomads who wander the American wastes, of the great American Waste itself. It’s a film that sits with you, worms its way into your mind with beautiful scenery, and leaves you to contemplate the fall of an empire.

Nomadland will play on VOD December 4-10, 2020, and opens theatrically on February 19, 2021.