There are a lot of deep silences in Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland. Oftentimes they’re intentional, as the lead character Fern (a magnificent Frances McDormand) spends much of her time alone with her tortured thoughts. Other times the lack of sound just seems to happen on its own, but no matter what it is always welcome in a film that, much as the title suggests, encourages one to take in a wider expanse. To come along on a journey that may be a bit wandering, but if you stop, take a deep breath, and soak in all of the life that’s around you, it will all be worth it in the end.
Nomadland is a wonderful film. That may be simplistic and undefined, but it’s true. It is a film that is tender, respectful, and asks you to look at America in a whole new light. Inspired by the novel by Jessica Bruder, and featuring many of the nomads she interviewed for it, the film is largely driven by McDormand as Fern, who saw the entire life she built in Empire, NV destroyed by the economic collapse. A company town, when the sheetrock employer that her husband worked at shut down, the place practically evaporated within months. The zip code literally deactivated. Fern’s husband died before too long, leaving her alone to wander in a fog of old, tragic memories of what she lost.
In her fixed-up van doubling as an RV, Fern criss-crosses the American west taking work wherever she can get it. Sometimes it’s working at the Amazon factory, others it’s at a fast food joint, cleaning rest stops. She is just one of what are thousands of people in their 60s and 70s who have gone off the grid as modern day nomads. Fern encounters those who have long since accepted this as their way of life. Linda May, a pro at the nomadic lifestyle; Swankie, a terminally ill woman with a hard exterior but a kind heart. And then there’s Dave, played by Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn in one of the few roles played by a professional actor. In Dave’s cautious encounters with Fern his romantic intentions are clear. What’s even clearer is that, while Fern enjoys her time with Dave, Linda May, and the large community of traveling souls she has found peace with, she values being alone, taking in the enormity of what’s still left in front of her.
There’s not much of a plot to speak of in Nomadland, and while that fits with Fern’s open-ended story it does circle the drain a little bit. Zhao, who not only directed but wrote the script and edited, is just so naturally curious about everything that she can’t let it go. This is a quality we also saw in her exquisite breakthrough film, The Rider. While she is interested in all of these people and how they interact with the world and deal with their various tragedies, Zhao remains totally free of judgement. These people who have chosen this life all have their hardships that set them on this difficult path. But they are not pitiable people. In an early scene, Fern encounters a girl she once tutored. Upon asking if she remembers anything, the girl recites a poem straight from memory, much to Fern’s delight. It’s like knowing she left this indelible mark on this one person is enough to keep her going. The girl then asks if she is homeless, to which Fern responds that she’s “houseless”, a tiny difference that means everything.
Can you be a revelation when you’ve already won a couple of Oscars and nominated for a few more? McDormand continues to find new ways to impress, sinking so deeply into the role of Fern that we forget we’re not watching a documentary. But then, Nomadland does have one foot in the world of fact, the other in fiction. McDormand lived this life for a time among these fellow travelers. The experience clearly moved her, as we see in her eyes as she listens to someone talk about a lost loved one. Or in perhaps the movie’s most beautiful moment, as Swankie waxes poetic about the natural moments she’s experienced that have given her difficult life meaning.
Nomadland inspires as much as it enriches. A loving ode to the pioneer spirit and the authentic experience of freedom, Nomadland is also, in its own quiet way, a welcome response to the nerve-racking isolation we have all felt this year. While every day is precarious, there’s something awesome about being out there in the great wide world, staring uncertainty and adversity right in the face.