Written by: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells
Publicized impacts of economic despair tend to have their focus on the people in populated areas due to the larger radius of individuals impacted. Those on the fringes don’t receive the same attention but feel the repercussions just as profoundly if not worse. Nomadland seeks to illuminate these shadowed areas and the experience of individuals putting their faith in corporations only to be continually let down.
Following the Great Recession, Fern (Frances McDormand) lost everything financially when the factory she and most of her town worked for went under. This has left her living a nomadic lifestyle traveling to each area providing seasonal work, at best, and meeting individuals with their own stories along the way.
Nomadland opens with text detailing how the shutting down of one factory not only severely caused unemployment in a town but erased the zipcode right off the map. This left all of these employees trying to grasp onto something for safety with no viable options available. Fern had the American dream of the house and the career that would set her up for retirement until it instantly went away. With no safety net, no protection, and no use of legal recourse, she has to start over with whatever she can do to survive.
As the title indicates, this film displays the modern nomadic lifestyle to a level of authenticity of having legitimate individuals of this way of living serving as actors in the story. In a way, it feels like a documentary at times because these individuals share their actual stories with the audience through Fern along with the circumstances leading them down this road. While some of the folks choose this lifestyle because of the economic flexibility, it also gives a level of personal freedom to experience the country in a way they could never do in the past. No distinct attachment to material goods and nothing but the beautiful landscape of the United States to explore.
Visually, Nomadland captures the beauty of this nation in a pristine and captivating manner, as it follows Fern to multiple locations. Due to her needing to find seasonal work at places like Amazon and even working at a fast-food restaurant, we get to see the Nevada deserts and the brutally frigid temperatures of the north. The cinematography work allows the country to shine with how it follows Fern through her normal routine with all of the beauty this nation has to offer naturally. Capturing the beautiful sunsets and dawns allow for a level of appreciation the typical person does not have when trapped indoors all day.
With Fern speaking to a host of different individuals on her journey, one main characteristic continually persists: an absence of cynicism. In these nomadic spots established, everyone wants to help out their fellow neighbor because they all see themselves in the same position and have no room for jealousy or hatred. Some individuals have nicer vans than others, but it ultimately does not matter and the narrative perfectly captures this sentiment on different occasions Fern requests help. Even with Fern having some experience in this lifestyle, she has plenty to learn and all the other characters provide sound advice throughout delivered without malice or annoyance. It restores faith in humanity that individuals forced to live this lifestyle can still be generous in situations where they do not have much to offer. This especially rings true when seeing the average age of the individuals living this way of life. With Fern being described as someone in her 60s, she has lived most of her life along with many of the others. The recession ruined any hope of a comfortable retirement, which has left them having to go from place to place to supply the funds to continue living a sustainable life.
When observing the film as a whole, it does not provide any large emotional climax nor does it present this harsh villain everyone must rally against. Nomadland seeks to just display this particular way of life and the people living it whether it be voluntary or not. This has been a trademark for the naturalistic filmmaker Chloé Zhao. She has done this similarly with her first two features, Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, where she takes non-actors and highlights their lives in a narrative structure. In this instance, she utilized the tremendous Frances McDormand as a fictional character, but she still manages to make the story about the people. This gets accomplished by having Fern be mostly a listening character for the others. She shares parts of her story when asked but she mostly hears what others have to say, thus sharing the narrative spotlights. Ranging from the heartbreaking to the inspirational, each real nomad appearing in the story displays the range of what it means to reach a certain age of life and the circumstances one can find themselves in. Deeply empathetic, especially with McDormand’s performance truly harnessing the spirit of this character.
Truly one of the all-time greats, McDormand has portrayed many fun and over the top characters, but the restrained work she does as Fern stands as some of her finest. She consistently presents this aura of warmth to her, especially in the way she listens to people. Fern becomes their microphone while also having her own heartbreaking story to share. McDormand leaves most of the work to her face to indicate her character connecting with others through their shared experience in such a meaningful way to display emotional tethering. It knocked me right out of my seat.
A thoroughly beautiful and worthwhile experience, Nomadland proves to be the American movie people need to see. It comments on the economic stronghold large industries have in small towns by listening to the people who experienced it firsthand. Not everyone has fully recovered from the Great Recession, as they had their way of living and economic future taken from them without even a proper warning. Chloé Zhao once again delivers a captivating stunner with her authentic filmmaking style, as she has proven excellence in capturing the American spirit of fortitude better than any other contemporary. Unmistakably masterful work on her end and one that refuses to leave my mind.