2021, R, 118 mins
Frances McDormand as Fern / David Strathairn as DaveWritten 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.
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").
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.
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
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.