Okay. Here’s the big mainstream awards darling, the film that everyone and their favorite talk show host has been trying to sell as the big Best Picture contender of 2020. Even though it didn’t screen outside of festivals anywhere until 2021. Whatever. Let’s see what we’ve got.
Nomadland opens with a title card, helpfully telling us about the US Gypsum plant in the town of Empire, Nevada. After a global decline in demand for sheetrock — to say nothing of a little thing called the Great Recession — the plant shut down in January of 2011. By July of that same year, so many people had fled from Empire that the town’s ZIP code was retired.
This is the story of Fern (played by producer Frances McDormand), who lived in Empire and worked at USG for several years, alongside her husband. The two of them were among the last to stay in Empire, until Fern’s husband died of some unspecified illness shortly after getting laid off.
In response, Fern sells off pretty much everything she has, stashing the rest into a van that’s been converted into a miniature mobile home. She proceeds to travel all over the country, taking various seasonal temp jobs. Along the way, she meets nomads of a similar lifestyle, trading various necessary tools and tips, comparing notes on which employers offer jobs, where to park safely overnight, and so on.
It’s a simple premise, but there’s a lot to unpack here.
First of all, it’s worth noting that even though the premise and the narrative span literally the entire continental United States over the course of a year, Fern keeps running into the same people. Yet the film sells it, because there are so few people living the nomad lifestyle and there are so few reliable havens for them. Perhaps more importantly, they all make a point of keeping on friendly terms, helping each other out with the knowledge that nobody else will. It really is a small world, in spite of all the vast open spaces, and that makes for a subtly poignant theme.
It’s also worth noting that with a few minor college-aged exceptions, pretty much all the characters in this film are senior citizens. And while all of them have markedly different life stories, there are quite a few noteworthy similarities. They’ve all lost loved ones. They’re all so old that nobody will hire them for long-term work. Their social safety nets are so thin that they can’t maintain life in the city without a regular income. None of them want to get suckered into taking a lifetime of debt to buy houses they can’t afford. We briefly meet a Vietnam veteran whose PTSD makes it borderline impossible to live in society for fear of all the loud noises.
The one thing that all of these nomads have in common — even and especially the younger ones — is that they’re unable or unwilling to live under the rules and the tedium of mainstream capitalist society. They’ve accepted that life is too short and they want to spend the rest of their days seeing the world and going on adventures.
And then the third act happens.
Without getting too deep into spoilers, the third act features a sequence in which Fern goes through another year. And it’s basically an abridged recap of the entire film up to that point. She spends her entire year going to the same places and taking the same jobs that she did the year before. So really, one could argue that she’s still a creature of the same capitalist routine, just on a different time scale.
It’s also important to note that some crucial characters are missing the second time around. Again, this community of nomads is surprisingly tight-knit and most of them are getting on in years. When one of them dies, the rest of them feel it. And whether you’re a nomad or a nine-to-fiver, any particular lifestyle loses a lot of luster when one has to go through it without the friends and loved ones found along the way.
Moreover, it must be repeated that Fern and her fellow nomads are only getting older. Plus, they’re living hand-to-mouth while driving thousands of miles in beat-up old vans. There will inevitably come a time — and it’ll come alarmingly soon — when the nomads’ bodies and vehicles will break down beyond repair. And when that time comes, they’ll have to make some hard decisions as to whether they want to die on a mattress. Assuming that’s even an option anymore.
It’s worth noting that with only one or two exceptions, all of the characters share the names of the actors playing them. In fact, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn (we’ll get to him later) are the only two recognizable actors in the cast, and everyone else is playing a fictionalized version of themselves. Even James — the son of David Strathairn’s character — is played by Tay Strathairn, David’s actual son!
(Side note: In July 2019, Tay Strathairn got married to Grace Gummer, middle child of Meryl Streep herself. They separated 42 days later, and their divorce was finalized in August 2020. As such, and given that Ms. Gummer is nowhere in the credits of the film, I have to assume that James’ wife and newborn child in the movie are played by actors and not Strathairn’s actual family. With this cast, that’s not exactly a given thing.)
More to the point, this means that most of the nomads that Fern meets on her journey are in fact played by actual nomads who really are living the lifestyle right now. Talk about a dicey proposition — believe it or not, real lived experience doesn’t always translate into acting talent. In this case, however, they’re acting against a world-class scene partner in Frances McDormand, under the profoundly capable direction of Chloe Zhao. Thus every single performance comes across as deeply sympathetic and unmistakably authentic.
For that matter, the whole movie feels authentic and grounded. There’s not a glimmer of Hollywood sheen to be found anywhere in this picture. Yes, the film was overtly made as a Best Actress campaign for McDormand and that makes for a bit of a jarring contrast at first, but McDormand (and David Strathairn, for that matter) is a seasoned veteran well-practiced at disappearing into a role. It also helps — and I say this with the utmost respect — that the conspicuous supermodel “Hollywood standard” look was never really her thing to begin with.
From start to finish, this film was made as a tribute to the empty spaces in the United States. The unclaimed land in between the cities. The places that lay abandoned and deserted because there’s no point or profit in developing them. The world is far less boring because mainstream society is so ignorant and apathetic toward these wide open spaces out beyond the fringes. Yet there’s beauty and shelter in those spaces for those with the curiosity and persistence to go looking for them.
Which brings me to the most glaring aspect of the film. I still haven’t quite decided if it’s a bug or a feature yet.
See, the film doesn’t really have a specified endpoint. There are no setups to pay off, there’s no ticking clock, there’s no particular goal for Fern to work toward. Thus the film itself doesn’t really have an end. Fern sets out to be a nomad, she goes out driving, we follow her for 100 minutes of screen time, and then she simply goes on without us.
This naturally means a wandering and unfocused plot, which is typical of most existential road movies like this one. But then we approach the third act, and it slowly becomes more obvious that this was never about what Fern was running toward. It was always about what Fern was running away from.
Remember, this whole thing started when Fern’s husband died. And that’s after her job disappeared, her company ceased to exist, her friends and neighbors all moved away, and her town crumbled around her. In the face of all that grief and loss, it makes perfect sense that she’d want to run away as far and as fast as possible. She spent her entire adult life in a committed relationship with the same man and the same town, now she’s going as hard as she can in the other direction.
But then along comes Dave (by which I mean David Strathairn’s character). He’s pretty much immediately established as a potential love interest, but it’s ambiguous as to whether the infatuation is mutual. Is Fern ready to move on so soon after her husband’s death? Is a long-term romance even possible or advisable at their age? Hell, how would a long-term committed relationship even work when they’re both living the nomad lifestyle and constantly on the move?
They could settle down together, but would that be worth giving up the freedom of the nomad lifestyle?
On a technical level, the film is perfectly fine. Again, the movie is quite notable for its total lack of Hollywood sheen, but the filmmakers successfully deliver a cinema verite style without resorting to aggressive shaky-cam. I might add that between writing, directing, producing, and even editing this movie, I have to wonder if there’s anything Chloe Zhao doesn’t excel at.
Nomadland is a slow and contemplative film by design. It’s not a film with massive stakes or high tension, and it’s too small and intimate a film to make any huge statements. Furthermore, the defiant lack of an ending or an intended destination may be enough to turn away some viewers — if this film had been around ten years ago, when I was a younger and less seasoned film critic, I’m sure it would’ve bored and frustrated me to keyboard-smashing rage.
Yet those with the patience for it will find an elegant and superbly made film, anchored by a masterful performance from Frances McDormand and a career-making effort from Chloe Zhao. The film has a lot of poignant and sympathetic statements about death, aging, grief, the inherent drawbacks of American capitalist society, and life on the fringes. Even better, these statements are made all the more authentic and incisive by captivating performances coaxed from actual people who are out living the nomad lifestyle right now.
I don’t know if I’d say it’s the greatest film of 2020. Honestly, all the standards relevant to that discussion got so fucked by the pandemic, there’s a reason I didn’t bother with my usual year-end lists for 2020. But it’s definitely a film worth checking out, I can tell you that.
I’ll see you down the road!