Release Date: Feb. 19, 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Columnist's rating: B+
In 2011, a mine in Empire, Nevada, was shut down and took its small town with it.
Golden Globe winner Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” is based on the 2017 non-fiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder. Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is a fictional character of the town Empire and the star of the show.
The film follows Fern as she reckons with the loss of her town and her husband. Without either, she is left with very little and is forced to live out of her van. She furnishes Vanguard, as she calls it, is furnished with a bed, cooking area and plenty of clever storage spaces.
The film showcases Fern’s powerfully stubborn independence which is conveyed tremendously through McDormand's quiet yet empathetic and gritty performance.
Fern refuses help from anyone that offers it and opts instead to live from hand to mouth, working gigs and small-time jobs across the western states. Eventually, however, Fern finally does yield her unrelenting independence by taking a trip to the middle of the Arizona desert. In the desert, Fern meets a self-described tribe of nomads on wheels. These nomads are a group of aging Americans that are forced to live out of their vehicles due to economic necessity, in most part due to the 2008 recession.
The tribe is where the film again blurs the lines between fact and fiction as many of the tribe’s nomads are playing versions of themselves, an element of the film that makes it feel more like a documentary than a winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture — Drama.
Linda May, the character that suggested the trip to Fern, is a real woman who was the subject of Bruder’s 2014 Harper’s Magazine essay "The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford to Stop Working." Also among the real nomads is Bob Wells, the de facto leader of the tribe and the one who holds the annual pilgrimage in the desert. Zhao, who also edited and wrote the film for screen, captures all of the stories in this one film with a loose, patient structure.
It is almost jarring to see a well-past retirement age group being forced to be fully self-sufficient, changing their own tires and peeing on the side of the road. This contrast in how we see our elderly versus what these people have been forced to endure is paramount to the film's themes. In one instance, you see them dancing and drinking and forget they really are 70 years old until one of them mentions they only have months to live after a cancer diagnosis. Every member of the tribe seems to have a story of grief that follows them, whether it is Fern's loss of her husband or Linda May's battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Viewers are forced to come to reality with this flock of people in what could be a grand critique on the failures of society and capitalism but is instead a quiet, patient portrait of the people that have been forced to deal with America’s flaws.
The pulling desires for solitude versus friendship are also paramount themes to the film. Fern meets Dave, who is a gentle yet clumsy fellow nomad who David Strathairn plays, in Arizona. They engage in a romance that is constantly interrupted by the solitude Fern is convinced she needs, as she is still so chained to her lost life with her husband in Empire.
“Nomadland” gives a crystal-clear look into the life of a modern-day nomad and what that entails. The film does a great job in exploring the economic and personal pitfalls one must fall through before winding up to such a life. However, it falls short of delivering as clear a message, opting instead to wade into predictable genre conventions with Dave and Fern's romance.
The film’s exploration of the open road, nature and solitude along with the characters and stories you encounter along the way is beautiful and at times moving, but it lacks the oomph to be great and entirely realize Fern and her journey.