HomeMovies'Nomadland' Review: Exploring the World Without Worrying About Your Place in It

‘Nomadland’ Review: Exploring the World Without Worrying About Your Place in It

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years. By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued. These words appear–and fade–to Fern (Frances McDormand) pulling items from a storage unit and moving them into her van, which will now serve as her home. The way she reveres the few dishes that she loads, and how she holds her late husband’s coat close to her, gives you a glimpse into her past, and how her story of living a nomadic life begins. Everyone that comes to live this way has their own story, some are heartbreaking, some are inspiring, but all depicted in Nomadland are edifying.

This film, now streaming on Hulu, based on the book by Jessica Bruder, and written and directed by Chloé Zhao, has 4 Golden Globe nominations, yet it’s also polarizing for those that don’t connect to it. It’s a film that requires you to appreciate the people that Fern encounters as much as you do her. To listen to their stories, share in their daily experiences, and while you might not fully see the world the same way that they do, to have a tiny part of you that desires to know what their grasp of freedom feels like. Nomadland doesn’t look to glamorize their way of life, and certainly doesn’t shy away from the inconveniences that accompany it, it simply presents that life for what it is, and why it works for them.

Zhao has developed a method of filmmaking which allows her to largely use non-actors to tell her stories. Outside of McDormand, and David Strathairn as Dave, a man with an obvious affection for Fern, everyone you see on screen is portraying some heightened version of themselves. The choice adds incredible authenticity, and is both a testament to their real knowledge, and ability to act at a believable level. It also shows how impressive McDormand is for blending in so seamlessly among them. She chose to really live in her van for months during the shoot, covering seven states, and that speaks to her dedication to this project and why she’s so convincing in it. McDormand is an incredible actress who could pull it off without living it, but she chose to. Maybe for herself, to experience a feeling for the same reason they do.

Nomadland at times feels like a documentary, often cutting between different people talking about their lives, or simply existing in this space, with the camera closely focused on their faces. For those flashes, this movie is theirs, and Zhao allows you to hear their stories and respond to them along with Fern. One especially strong example is a lady known as Swankie, who helps Fern when she is in a bind. As she talks about nearing the end of what she feels has been a good life, she details various wildlife she’s encountered while kayaking around the country. The ambient score created by Ludovico Einaudi begins to play, and you find yourself hanging on her words and picturing what she describes.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards is as good at closing things off to show us those intimate moments as he is at capturing the magnificent landscapes that Fern discovers along the way. There are some stunningly beautiful shots, but it never feels filtered, or like the crew waited for the perfect weather to fall into place—which they likely couldn’t afford to do anyway. It just so happens that the world can be a beautiful place when you have the space to step back and admire it.

While these nomads sleep within the small, confined spaces of their vehicles, their true lives exist in vast open spaces, untethered from what they view as the burden of traditional societal constructs. They still have a community when they want one, and they’ll look out for one another, but as Fern puts it early on, she’s not homeless, just houseless, and it’s not the same thing. Ultimately, everyone has their reasons for choosing this way of life, but it mostly comes down to not wasting time. Just like they make the most of each square inch of their vehicles, they also want to make the most of each day they have, to see the world.

Each odd job that Fern takes along the way is a chance to meet new people, all of whom she can learn from. You see that most people still have a desire to work in some capacity to support themselves, and Fern takes odd jobs at warehouses, trading posts, and campgrounds among others, which are all a part of this intricate network that helps to provide for those on the move. This migration causes people to meet up again after some time passes, and as real-life inspirational speaker and van dweller Bob Wells puts it, he never has to truly say goodbye to anyone. Instead, he says he’ll see them down the road, and usually does. This sentiment lends itself to one of the best sequences and one that cements whether you are responding to what you are watching.

Early on, Fern gives a cigarette and a lighter to a young drifter named Derek, a seemingly brief throwaway interaction. Much later she happens upon him again, and they discuss if he has a girl in his life, which leads to her reciting poetry that he could share with her in his letters. His unique charisma, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix portraying Johnny Cash, is captivating, and then her words flow, and Einaudi’s score begins again, and it cuts between him continuing his walk down the road and Fern exploring redwood trees in California. It’s one of a few purposefully poignant transitions that can elicit a response of euphoria, where you are witnessing her exist in a perfect moment, whether she’s floating in a river, or walking into the wind on an oceanside cliff. People live for these moments, and they are also the reason that a film without a plot can be this powerful.

Nomadland is beautiful, and while it may not fit the mold of the formulaic, plot-driven movies people see every day, it can be far more impressive if you connect with it. Everyone might not be at the right time in their lives to respond to something like this, and that time is different for everyone, but eventually, a day comes when you want to stop living in memories and make new ones. Zhao has brought something to the screen that breathes life into that familiar wanderlust while also shining a light on a group of people often overlooked.

Nomadland is now streaming on Hulu.

Ben Murchison
Ben Murchison
Ben Murchison is a regular contributor for TV and Movies. He’s that guy that spends an hour in an IMDb black hole of research about every film and show he watches. Strongly believes Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be the best show to ever exist, and that Peaky Blinders needs more than 6 episodes per series. East Carolina grad, follow on Twitter and IG @bdmurchison.


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