It’s one thing to look at a drifter and think of the choices they made to be in that position. Nomadland puts its perspective on an older individual living outside conventional society through no fault of her own. The key to its success is the way director Chloe Zhao refuses to sensationalize the unfolding drama. Even calling this a drama undermines the spirit of the film, as it is simply a look at life. Yes, the film is coming at life from an angle not witnessed by those with the ability to watch movies conveniently on a regular basis, but Nomadland is more interested in painting a picture of life on the road, however challenging or at times stunning that may be.
Set in 2012, this is a film showing the results of an economic collapse and its effect on the older population of middle America. However, this is not a film concerned with politics. Regardless of any possible subtext to infer, or where opinions may lie, the film is focused on sketching out a clear scenario. We see the entire movie from the perspective of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her 60s, who must deal with the position she’s been placed in, following the closure of a local mine in northern Nevada.
Compared to McDormand’s turns as a “Minnesota nice” police officer or an outspoken grieving mother in search of justice, both of which won her Oscars, her work here is very much internalized. She has conversations with various people in similar situations, but the isolation and constant need to move from place to place in her van means seeing a character whittled down to their essence. Fern is capable and reluctantly accepting the adventure she is on, but also vulnerable. It’s not about finding the opportunity to be swept away from this life. Nomadland presents a journey that very much could be an ongoing one for Fern.
The tricky thing is watching Zhao take such an accomplished actress, who can do plenty with just her expressions, and insert her effortlessly into a society of familiars. As the film finds Fern taking odd jobs here and there, let alone meeting up at various communes of a sort, we watch her be a part of these unique communities. From these moments, much like the non-actors who worked so well in Zhao’s previous film, the highly acclaimed The Rider, Nomadland finds time to introduce us to Linda May, Bob Wells, and Swankie, fellow older folks living this life. You’d be convinced these people were gifted character actors with 100 credits to their name.
Whether watching Fern find minor companionship with mentor-like figures or friends, or seeing her briefly inhabit odd jobs like campground attendant, kitchen staff, or as an Amazon factory employee (McDormand actually worked this job for these scenes), the film never attempts to overwhelm the viewer with options that may lead her down a particular path. Even the presence of the film’s one other professional actor, David Strathairn, is more of a casual rendezvous serving as a distraction, as opposed to a genuine love interest.
Instead, Nomadland plays as a cerebral character study, although not too focused on the state of mind to shy away from the beautiful scenery existing all around Fern. Zhao, once again, settles into a cinematic atmosphere that calls to mind Days of Heaven and other dreamlike scenery out of a Malick film or something as pure from that time period. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography captures the characters frequently during magic hour, emphasizing both the life in the margins they exist in, along with the welcome nature of the environment. Yes, we see the cold Fern must survive in, even while camped within her van, but the lack of malice found in any of the characters she meets up with speaks to the genial nature of the film.
Even when things are at their most difficult, Nomadland never pushes away from the minimalist nature of its storytelling. Zhao adapted this film from the novel, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, a work of non-fiction by Jessica Bruder. We often talk about the ways people can take dramatic license with a story. In the case of this film, Zhao and McDormand took a look down the road and found a way to commit honesty to the screen in the most exquisite ways.