“I’m not homeless. I’m houseless.” So says Fern (Frances McDormand), the nomad at the center of Chloé Zhao‘s achingly beautiful Nomadland. Fern lives in her van now, but once, she was a resident of Empire, Nevada – a town that simply ceased to exist when its main economical source, a gypsum plant, shuttered. Now Fern drifts about, doing seasonal work for Amazon and seemingly always on the move. Always searching. For what? Home? Not exactly. Really, she’s in search of America.
Simultaneously gritty and gorgeous, Nomadland gives McDormand yet another opportunity to show us just how unparalleled a performer she is. McDormand occupies nearly every single frame of the film, and her work here – subtle, quiet, heartbreaking – is a masterclass. Fern is often quiet, but always listening. And McDormand knows exactly how to convey that – the act of listening; the act of empathy. She’s in conflict with no one. She merely wants to exist.
Drawing on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland is a blend of fiction and reality, with Fern interacting with real-life nomads, including Bob Wells, a kind of mentor to wanderers everywhere. And Charlene Swankie, playing a nomad named Swankie who is dying, but who is also at peace. Swankie speaks of rafting down a river and being overcome by the presence of a flock of swallows flying to and fro from their cliffside nests, their empty shells falling into the water. Later, Swankie sends Fern a video of this very thing, and we can see that it is, indeed, a thing of beauty. We understand where that inner peace is coming from.
None of the people of Nomadland are angry. They don’t bemoan their current situation. They reflect, and they’re often melancholy about events from their past, but they don’t rail against the world they’re in. They don’t accuse anyone of anything. They’re simply trying to get by. Like Fern, Nomadland drifts – it moves from one spot to the next, tracking an entire year in Fern’s life as she navigates the country.
It’s not an ideal existence, but there’s peace here. There’s beauty. Zhao isn’t glamorizing this life of people who live in vans, sleep in parking lots, and struggle to scrape by. But she doesn’t judge them, either. The filmmaker simply lets the narrative, and its inhabitants, speak for itself. The result is something altogether graceful. This film is good for your soul.
There’s a natural, documentary-like vibe to the scenes. None of the dialogue seems scripted, but rather plays out as if Zhao caught everyone in mid-conversation. Aside from McDormand and David Strathairn, playing a kind drifter who takes a liking to Fern, the cast here comes across as genuine. Late in the film, Fern stops to give a young nomad a light, and the two strike up a laid-back, gentle conversation. In many ways, Fern is in the same boat as this young man, and yet all she can think to do is ask about his situation; to care for him. Empathy radiates off the screen in a way I can’t recall seeing in a long, long time – if at all.
The last few years have done much to underline the cruelty and indifference of America, the richest country in the world that inexplicably lets its people starve and scrape just to eke out another day. That cruelty isn’t absent in Nomadland, but it’s not front and center, either. It’s simply there, an undeniable presence. And amidst that cruelty, beauty shines through. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures the landscapes Fern travels through in stark, gorgeous wide shots – magic hour plays a big part in the film, and nearly every spot Fern stops at has something breathtaking to behold. Even in the harsh, cold winter, there’s a hint of warmth.
We get a sense of Fern’s past as she travels. She can quote Shakespeare from memory. She has a sister she turns to when she has no other option. Friends from a seemingly past life spot her in public and talk softly to her as if they were talking with someone who had just come through a great tragedy. Fern was married once – the marriage happened when she was quite young, and her husband got sick and died very early in the marriage. And after that death, Fern simply…drifted.
There’s a Hollywoodized version of this movie in some alternate reality, where the movie is all about how Fern gets back on her feet and stops living in her van and makes a downpayment on a new house, ready to start over. But that’s what Nomadland is. It’s not about Fern’s destination – it’s about her journey. Zhao doesn’t need big speeches or moments where the story holds our hand and walks us through why Fern is doing what she’s doing. To do so would be cheap and dishonest, and Nomadland has no interest in that. It knows that for some people – people like Fern – there is no real destination. There’s no end in sight. As Bob Wells tells her, he never says a final goodbye to his fellow nomads when they part ways – he just tells them he’ll see them further down the road.
And that road stretches on. For Fern, it never ends. Even when she makes a stop back in her old, now-dead town, a ghost haunting her own past. McDormand carries the weight of hundreds of thousands of miles on her face as she looks out towards whatever landscape she’s pointed in. There will be hard times ahead. But there will be moments like those swallows by the river, too. It’s a mean, cruel country – but there’s beauty lurking somewhere out there, waiting to be found.
/Film Rating: 10 out of 10
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