Nomadland (United States/Germany, 2020)

December 04, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Nomadland Poster

To find Nomadland, all one has to do is locate the place where the documentary intersects with the feature film. Based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, writer/director/editor Chloe Zhao has added form and texture by presenting this journey from the perspective of a character, Fern (Frances McDomand), who is aided and abetted in her quest by a few other fictional individuals (including one played by veteran character actor David Strathairn, doing some of most understated work since his John Sayles days) and a host of non-actors playing slightly embellished versions of themselves (including the trio of Linda May, Bob Wells, and Swankie). Moody, introspective, and meditative, Nomadland makes up for its meandering, sometimes maddeningly slow pace with its insights about human nature and its incisive portrait of indomitability.

The movie is about nothing…and everything. It starts by introducing us to Fern, a sixtysomething widow who has lost her husband and now her town. Empire, Nevada was inhabited entirely by employees of the United States Gypsum Corporation and, when the mine was closed, everyone left. (As the introductory caption notes, its zip code was discontinued within months.) Facing the prospect of life in a ghost town, Fern packs up her few belongings in a van and begins her life as a nomad – moving from state-to-state and locale-to-locale, following seasonal odd-jobs as they spring up. She makes just enough to afford the bare necessities and, although she has friends, she may go many months in between meetings. Her biggest fear is that the van will break down.

Zhao’s screenplay deftly weaves fact and fiction. She imposes structure on an otherwise aimless story by giving Fern a fellow companion, Dave (Strathairn), with whom she occasionally touches base. Her three mentors – Linda May, Bob Wells, and Swankie – are real-life nomads. The incorporate biographical elements with new details provided by the script. The movie’s Swankie, for example, is suffering from terminal cancer. The actual Swankie, however, is alive and kicking and somewhat amazed that she has somehow become a movie star!

For Frances McDormand, bringing this project to the screen has been a labor of love. She optioned Bruder’s book and brought the project to Zhao, whose previous work (Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider) caught her attention. Making Nomadland, McDormand engages in a kind of method acting that would have made Marlon Brando proud. She becomes Fern. She isn’t afraid to get a little dirty or to eschew makeup. She doesn’t flinch from a full-frontal nude scene (floating on her back in a river). She immerses herself in the culture to the extent that she’s indistinguishable from the many real modern-day nomads who surround her.

Nomadland isn’t political. It doesn’t have an ax to grind. Although Zhao trains her lens on blue collar workers who have lost their livings and lifestyles, she doesn’t use this as an opportunity for righteous anger. These characters aren’t self-pitying. They show courage and fortitude in doing what they must. They go on and find meaning in their new life. As Fern comments at one point, “I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless.” And there are compensations for this rootless existence – one that the pioneers would have appreciated. Fern isn’t tied to a plot of land. Her backyard is the West. She can bathe in rivers and spend the nights surrounded by the vastness of canyons and mountains.

Zhao is careful not to make the movie all about nature. She and her cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, don’t strive for the picture-perfect look of a coffee table book. There are some beautiful shots but, for the most part, Zhao keeps the movie’s focus on the people not the world through which they travel. She’s making a portrait, not a landscape. The lines crisscrossing Fern’s features are more interesting than the trails interrupting the lonely, unbroken terrain around her.

Needless to say, this isn’t a movie for those who demand energy and action. It’s even more unfocused than the average road trip movie. Unlike conventional productions of this sort, Nomadland has no end point. It meanders along, allowing the viewer to absorb details and get to know the central character. When it’s over, it’s not because something monumental has been achieved (although the film’s closing five minutes arguably represent its most poignant sequences) but because we have come to as good a stopping point as any. That’s a commendation for the efforts of Zhao and the performance of McDormand, both of whom stand a reasonable likelihood of being recognized in more than a few end-of-the-year acknowledgments.

Nomadland (United States/Germany, 2020)

Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells, Swankie
Screenplay: Chloe Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
Cinematography: Joshua James Richards
Music: Ludovico Einaudi
U.S. Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1