Fern (Frances McDormand) is in mourning. She spent her adult life living happily with her husband in Empire, Nevada, a small town built around a gypsum plant. However, when the plant closes, the town and Fern’s husband dies with it. Left to her own devices, a grieving Fern buys a van and hits the road. She travels the country, falling in with another group of lost souls and eventually transforming into an eponymous nomad. This, in a nutshell, is the film’s essence. And I loved every second of it.
“Nomadland” is a case study in isolation. As a self-labeled nomad, Fern ostracizes herself from society and in doing so, has a lot of alone time. We, as an audience, spend these moments alongside Fern as silent voyeurs of a quiet existence. Monotony is a difficult theme to capture through film and another filmmaker may have dramatized the movie with a story of redemption. Fern isn’t chasing redemption, and director Chloe Zhao stays true to the character, choosing instead to drift alongside Fern in a real, almost documentary-style storytelling.
However, the beauty of the story is illustrated as much through the shots as it is through the character. For “Nomadland,” Zhao works once again with cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who was also the DP on Zhao’s first feature. Together, they manage to make the camera itself a nomad, flowing effortlessly with Fern through handheld tracking shots of Fern walking through an RV camp to wide, static shots of apocalyptic horizons. “Nomadland” solidifies Zhao as one of the most promising filmmakers of her generation, a confident auteur whose breathing life into a film industry desperately in need of creativity.
But despite the technical perfection, the film only works with Frances McDormand as the lead. McDormand, whose unequivocally one of the best actresses working, is brilliant as the impossibly complex Fern. It’s a subtle performance, with McDormand delivering entire emotions with a sly smile or a creasing frown. She’s blunt and brutal when she has to be (“Don’t touch the china, Dave!”), but is otherwise a warm presence, specifically in her encounters with other nomads. It’s these scenes that really steal the movie, as aside from McDormand and David Strathairn, the film’s cast is made up entirely of real people. It creates an authenticity in the conversations, and the friendships Fern builds feel genuine and human. Probably because they are.
“Nomadland” is, at its core, a story about grief. However, the film’s connective tissue is the depiction of hopelessness felt by many Americans following the 2008 recession. The question plaguing the drifters of the film is what to do when your country fails you? For the nomads, the answer is to run. Or better yet, to escape. And while it’s antithetical to the typical American lifestyle, the film isn’t propagating that one way of living is better than the other. Instead, “Nomadland” simply reveals that we only live once and to waste it is to do yourself a disservice.