In a landscape of movies that try to do too much, Nomadland is refreshing, and hauntingly moving in how pared back it is. Thanks to Chloé Zhao’s incredible directing skills, a score from Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, and McDormand’s unparalleled acting chops, this is a film that speaks a thousand words even in its quietest moments.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Nomadland is an exploration of grief, simple living, restlessness and the ways in which capitalism fails the American public.
The film references real-life town Empire, Nevada — a former mining area that became a ghost town thanks to the global financial crisis, displacing the entire community. It is from this pinnacle of deindustrialisation that our protagonist, Fern (McDormand) hails from, having lost her home, job and husband and opting for a life on the road in her van.
Zhao, who has been nominated for a Best Director and Best Screenplay Golden Globe, does a brilliant job of balancing the film’s stretches of loneliness with moments of pure joy. Montages of the monotony and isolation of Fern’s life interchange beautifully with scenes of her befriending the people she meets along the way.
These people, incidentally, are not fellow actors, but real-life nomads who were featured in Bruder’s book. The fact that scenes between a three-time Academy Award-winning actress and people with presumably no acting experience come across so naturally and nuanced is truly a testament to everyone involved. At no point is the acting wooden or forced — instead, it leaps off the screen and gives you a real sense of who these people are, what it is they have left behind and what they are searching for.
Zhao also cleverly cuts between the sweeping landscapes of America with cavernous shots of “big business” at play. Fern finds short term work at an Amazon packing facility each winter and the bright yellow bursts of the storage tubs and scaffolding provide a perfect juxtaposition to the pastels and earth tones of the panoramas she explores on her travels.
Additionally, Fern’s yearly stint working for the company provides a simple marker for time in the film, allowing audiences to process the fact that an entire year of Fern’s transient life has passed, at times feeling tinged with possibility and at, at others, torturously inert.
That the character returns each year to work a winter contract at the retail juggernaut is an interesting piece of the puzzle given the films anti-capitalist undertone. Yet, it is equally necessary as we explore a post-recession America, in which so many citizens found that, after a lifetime of work, their country had nothing to offer them in return for their retirement.
One of the most captivating elements of Fern is that her life, and her losses, have not made her mean. She makes friends with the people she meets along the way, is kind to those who need help and works hard no matter how menial the job she is tasked with. The fact that Zhao and McDormand choose to avoid falling into the trope whereby a character who has been hurt by life is, therefore, abrasive and impenetrable, make Fern’s interactions all the more lovely and the character all the more three dimensional. No, Fern is not going to break out into a six-minute monologue about the fragility of life and the evils of corporate America, but she also doesn’t recoil when someone wants to know more about her.
To one such person she responds, with a smile, “No, I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. It’s not the same thing, right?”, and recites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 to another, explaining that she used it as her wedding vows.
The themes of Nomadland may be intense, and the people we meet may have faced untold despair, but the film somehow manages to avoid wallowing. Through impeccable acting and wide-ranging backstories, there is joy to be found and hope to hold onto.
Perhaps that is what makes Nomadland so special, this is a picture that doesn’t preach letting go or holding on, but shows that there is a way to exist in between.