Nomandland is remarkably mindful, stoic, and just so beautiful.
After Chloé Zhao’s sophomore film, The Rider, I wrote I could not wait to see what she would come up with next. Her follow-up, Nomadland, while stunning, does not quite surpass that film’s sheer poetry in motion. It does, though, have Zhao’s trademarks — breathtaking visuals, a haunting score, and a pitch-perfect final scene. Only this time she has an actress in Francis McDormand that can match her immense talents.
Zhao’s Nomadland is a portrait of a woman reverting back to a nomadic existence after the loss of personal and professional identity. That woman is Fern and she is played by Francis McDormand, in one of the year’s best performances. She is a woman who lost everything during the recession, including her husband. She made a life for herself in Empire, Nevada. Now it’s is a ghost town, empty, after the United States Gypsum Company effectively ended Empire’s purpose for existing.
At that point, and now with her husband gone and no home to call her own (she is “housless” not “homeless”), she pulls a Scooby-Doo and lives in her van as she travels the American West picking up seasonal jobs and living a serious case of a minimalist lifestyle. She isn’t solving crimes, but she is going on as much of an adventure as one could possibly do at her age and meager means. She works when she can and saves for the lean times when there are fewer jobs (companies like Amazon recognize and take advantage of the number of seniors who need work and pay them as part-time employees without benefits). She travels south during the colder months and takes impromptu classes on how to live a modern nomadic lifestyle taught by Bob Wells– a real-life figure who was featured in Nomadland and several of the subjects play themselves in the film.
Fern meets many interesting people on the way, but this is not a parable where each person is going to teach her a spiritual or even a moral lesson. She loves meeting new and interesting people. She finds comfort, some might say she is making the best of things, and the most cynical may find her optimistic outlook as a way to cope with poverty at such a late age. Her friend Linda May (played by, you guessed it, Linda May) teaches her the ins and out of how to be successful on the road. Fern also meets a badlands tour guide named Dave (the always dependable David Statherian, every 50-year-old-plus woman’s heartthrob) and befriends him. He even sets her up at the famous Wall Drug flipping burgers for the season (I’ve been there and they give you free ice water, in case you are interested).
Nomadland is the result of a successful collaboration of Chloé Zhao fitting a fictional Fern with a real-life economic downfall of Empire, Nevada and journalist Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Bruder heard about the phenomenon of older adults traveling the country for work, seasonally, and chronicling their journeys. In true Zhao fashion, as she did in The Rider and as mentioned above, she takes several of those real-life figures and they play themselves. This type of collaboration, and visiting the ghost town of Empire, bring a superior level of authenticity most narrative films exploring a subject cannot reach.
There is no real plot here because just like her subjects, it’s about immersing yourself as the modern Nomad. Zhao’s film is a minimalist experience if there ever was one and it’s all the better for it. Nomadland is remarkably mindful, even stoic, and just so beautiful; not only in the images the Zhao’s masterful control of the camera captures, but of the themes of dealing with change, unemployment, closure, and displacement— which is what many are feeling right now and these emotions are brought for the viewer. Francis McDormand is the entire film and immersed herself in the experience. Her method approach dazzles here in a deeply personal journey of self-discovery and self-assured autonomy.
As I noted above, Zhao’s portrait of reverting back to is a nomadic existence after the loss of personal and professional identity, but it has a finger on the pulse of what is happening today and what has been going on since the Great recession where many have not recovered. It captures modern themes that many on the west or east coasts know little about or now painfully do. The final scene, along with Ludovicio Einaudi’s evocative score and Joshua James Richards’ God-like cinematography, put a stamp on what makes Nomadland one of the great American films to come out in quite some time.
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