In my notes for Nomadland, I scribbled that Fern (Frances McDormand) lives “untethered.” But that’s not exactly true. She’s firmly attached to the van in which she lives. It allows her to cook what food she can find and sleep in any parking lot that will have her. The van also houses a few precious mementoes of Fern’s life on the grid, thus satisfying the ache of nostalgia and supplying the illusion that she can simply drive in the opposite direction of her grief. So, Fern doesn’t really live untethered. She just lets the cord stretch for hundreds of miles behind her.
When we first meet Fern, she’s at the rope’s origin point: An exhausted, recession-wracked place called Empire, Nevada. It seems the 2008 downturn hit Empire so hard that when the local factory closed, the town was rendered extinct. Even its very zip code was chucked in the bin. In the midst of this hardship, Fern’s husband succumbs to cancer. Her house gets seized. Nomadland begins as Fern stashes a few belongings in storage and hits the road.
Through a friend, Fern meets up with a sprawling community of van-dwellers, somewhere in the Arizona sagebrush. The film brilliantly casts real nomads, who play fictionalized versions of themselves. They coalesce around Bob Wells, a sort-of guru for the rootless, who offers tidbits of wisdom and helps organize the makeshift town into a communal family.
Within this collective, many of the people have varying reasons for being there. Some want the freedom to explore, or just simply to be. Many, like Fern, keep moving to cope with their grief. She meets David (David Strathairn), an older man who seems to be a mixture of the two. He takes an immediate liking to Fern, and though the feeling is mutual, she keeps one eye fixed on the open road.
Writer-director Chloé Zhao, adapting Jessica Bruder’s bestselling book, spends the balance of the film meticulously examining what makes Fern tick. In the hands of Zhao and McDormand, Fern is a deceptively complex woman: She is amiable, but with an undercurrent of melancholia. She is unapologetic about her lifestyle, but politely corrects someone when they refer to her as homeless. (“I am houseless,” she says.) Fern longs for human interaction, but constantly finds a way to outmaneuver David’s advances.
As a character study, Nomadland is strengthened by a startling sense of realism: When Fern mingles with the actual people depicted in Bruden’s book, it feels eerily like we’re watching a documentary. All the amateur players speak in a natural, unvarnished style, giving their emotional monologues even more impact. McDormand and Strathairn also strip their dialogue of any theatricality, until it feels like Fern and David are just two more inhabitants of this camp. It’s an amazing display of skill, and both actors should be nominated for Academy Awards.
As for Zhao, she somehow achieves a deft balance of minimalism and sweeping cinematic beauty. She builds Fern’s loneliness and quiet despair through scenes of lengthy silence. Fern spends a lot of time shivering in her van, or staring into nothing. Ludovico Einaudi often punctuates these moments with beautiful flourishes of piano. By contrast, Zhao also opts for gorgeous panoramas of the American Southwest, Highway 101, and the Dakota Badlands. In Nomadland, the American frontier qualifies as a supporting character in of itself. Also of note is the showy scene where Fern stands along the rocky shoreline of the Northern Pacific. She lets the cleansing mist from the onslaught of battering waves wash over her body. It’s a bravura moment, and Zhao should also get some Oscar love.
I won’t give away the film’s ending, but some viewers may find it frustratingly enigmatic. For me, Zhao perfectly wraps up this sharp, thoughtful, overtly ambitious drama. Like Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces, Fern does exactly what her character is supposed to do. To the untrained eye, she might seem rootless, even free. But notice the scene where Bob Wells tells Fern that the nomads don’t believe in goodbyes, or the finality of death: The departed are waiting somewhere down the road. This is meant to be comforting, but Fern responds with muffled sadness. Everything that she left hundreds of miles behind is always waiting for her, just a few more miles ahead. Nomadland is one of the year’s best films.
108 min. R. Hulu