A film review by Craig J. Koban April 19, 2021


2021, R, 118 mins

Frances McDormand as Fern  /  David Strathairn as Dave

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder

Chloe Zhao's NOMADLAND is one of those rare human dramas that's small and unassuming in scale, but one that nevertheless speaks volumes towards how certain forgotten segments of society - the poor, desperate, and downtrodden - try to eek out a living and provide for themselves.  

It's a modestly scaled, but wholeheartedly powerful and authentically rendered movie about ordinary people stuck in painful ruts that are trying to pull themselves out to achieve a piece of the American dream, but face nearly insurmountable odds in the process.  Zhao specializes in helming searing dramas featuring voices not usually heard in mainstream cinema (her 2018 effort THE RIDER - which made my list of the TEN BEST FILMS of that year - was a genre mashing original featuring indigenous cowboys from reservations that not only reinvigorated the western genre, but also was an enriching tale of Native American culture).  Now, with NOMADLAND, the Chinese-American filmmaker tackles the microcosm of the neglected facing crippling poverty and a lack of hope or options, and - like THE RIDER before it - it profoundly moved me. 

Zhao's screenplay here - based on the 2017 Jessica Bruder novel of the same name - is masterful in its economy in exploring its older characters that try to escape from their dire financial circumstances and make it through each day through sheer determination alone.  The great Francis McDormand (also serving as producer here) plays Fern, a woman approaching the winter of her life that should be settling down to a cozy and relaxing retirement, but fate steps in with a cruel iron fist to capsize such plans.  She once lived a happy and content life in Empire, Nevada with her loving husband, but when the local gypsum plant closed down forever - which was the occupational lifeline of the community - Empire slowly ceased to exist (in just six short months its very zip code was eliminated from public record).  If this wasn't enough of a nightmarish blow for Fern, she then has to face the tragic death of her husband, leaving her alone, penniless, and without any means of supporting herself.  She's not only unemployed, but homeless (but don't tell the latter to her, seeing as she's too stubbornly proud to accept such monikers...she prefers the term "houseless").   

Facing nothing buy abject misery if she stays in her decaying home town, Fern packs up what little she has left in the world into her broken down beater of a van and begins her new life driving across America like a nomad in search of a job and perhaps some like her facing similar hardships.  She migrates from town to town, state to state, and takes whatever odd seasonal job she can (in one instance, she works 12 hour shifts at an Amazon facility) in order to provide the barest of food and clothing needs, but she does so while living out of her van, and oftentimes during the worst pasts of winter.  Fern eventually does find some emotional solace when she hooks up with a group of fellow nomads like her, whom all band together in makeshift traveling communities that move when required to provide for their basic necessities, but refuse to live in a larger social/economic system that breeds the continual divide between the haves and have nots.  For a time, Fern seems to have some level of peace and contentment with her new friends, but as jobs start getting scarce and her van begins to see its last days she grows to understand the severity of her plight, but musters up the internal drive to soldier on. 



The most enthralling sections of NOMADLAND involve Fern living within these tight knit nomad communities and the colorfully eccentric denizens that make up its core, many of which share her frustrations and sense of futility to come, but continually force themselves to keep their chins up and do what they can to survive.  Much like her approach in THE RIDER, Zhao uses many non-actors in NOMADLAND to play there "houseless" wanderers, and the effect here breathes with a documentary veracity throughout.  Outside of well known performers like David Strathairn (so wonderfully modulated and refined here) playing a fellow traveling worker that befriends Fern, most of the other roles contained within the film are inhabited by real people.  It's a creative gamble, to be sure, but it works wonders in NOMADLAND to lend an aura of spontaneous naturalness to the proceedings.  You really feel that Fern is in a real living and breathing community of modern nomads and not something that seems like the product of a movie production.  Seeing these people share stories, advice, and material goods in a collective effort to keep everyone's heads above water in the dramatic heartbeat of NOMADLAND. 

One thing that Zhao also does thanklessly well here is that she remains completely non-judgmental of these people at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain.  This is a movie about hard working blue collar people that have had their livelihoods completely taken away from them at terribly late stages of life, so the temptation from a lesser filmmaker would be to be forcefully preachy with some sort of larger agenda to attack the systems in place that led these poor souls down their hopeless paths.  Thankfully, NOMADLAND does none of this.  Instead, it more of less asks audiences to simply observe people like Fern and her community and try to understand what makes them tick.  Most importantly, Zhao asks for viewer empathy, which is what these characters richly deserve.  This is what makes NOMADLAND such an atypically honest and forthright reflection of uprooted and browbeaten people that - through no fault of their own - can't stay put, can't retire, and must travel through the worst the world has to offer...and do so without being remotely self-pitying.  Fern and her nomads are endlessly courageous and tenacious, which leaves NOMADLAND feeling inspirational despite the misery that permeates it.  And it is utterly depressing to see this pocket of Americans being slowly eaten away by the total eradication of their towns and lack of opportunity, but Zhao isn't engaging in shameless poverty porn like last year's sanctimonious HILLBILLY ELEGY.  She shows great compassion and understanding for these proud people, and they're anything but crudely delineated caricatures here. 

Zhao also crafts a beautiful looking travelogue picture as well, and collaborating again with her THE RIDER cinematographer Joshua James Richards nets another staggeringly picturesque portrait of American vistas and landscapes that look like they belong in a neo-Western.  Fern's journey takes her all over a wide cross section of states and environments, and NOMADLAND manages to fine both the beauty and the punishing extremes of these various locales.  I've read of many complaining that the film is sometimes aimlessly meandering in terms of storytelling and/or that there's not much of an overarching plot or narrative trajectory to be had here.  I think that's a tad unfair.  To the contrary, NOMADLAND's episodic nature is crucial in terms of echoing Fern's plight as she treks through the country in search of some sort of stability.  There's simple nothing stable about her troubles, which makes the film's capturing of the restlessness of these people all the more appropriate and appreciated.  Zhao isn't preoccupied with linear scripting here and obligatory three act structures containing a sense of closure.  She's trying, I think, to build a world here from the ground up that's made up of patched together experiences, memories, and indomitable people finding consolation together.   

I can't forget to talk about McDormand in closing, who has given one refined and memorable performance after another throughout her acclaimed career, and her Oscar caliber work here is no exception.  Not only does she quarterback nearly every single scene in NOMADLAND, but she has to navigate through the vast complexities of this damaged, but not broken women.  You gain an immediate sense with Fern that she's been given a very raw and painful deal in life out of a putrid deck, but she never succumbs to remorse, nor does she beg for sympathy or hand outs.  She just moves on.  She has no other choice.  And if she doesn't, she won't survive.  Fern is as powerful of a hero as I've seen in a recent film, and McDormand is so quietly commanding in the role that I simply couldn't see any other actress doing any better.  NOMADLAND is an ultra rare breed of humanistic drama that sheds light on these subjugated heroes, the countless ones stomped out by recessions that are tossed aside both in life and in the movies.  As a rumination on anxiety plagued outsiders feeling lost and unsure of what will come tomorrow - but that do find therapy via the comfort and kindness of strangers - this film has few equals. 

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