I can’t even remember the last time I reviewed a new movie on this blog, but let’s see if I still remember how to do it. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been a lot of good movies to come out post-pandemic, since we were able to put together our Top Ten Movies of 2020 lists without it feeling like we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. But it’s still been a while since I’ve seen a movie that has affected me enough that it was able to transcend the fact that I was still stuck at home watching it, even though it’s a film featuring the expanse of the American West that you’d prefer to see on a big screen. But whatever format you’re seeing it on, aside from the prettiness of its natural imagery, Nomadland is also filled with a ton to chew on in terms of its themes, topicality, and of course empathy.
While Nomadland does have a lot of attributes that I’m typically looking for in an indie drama, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to love it. This is because I respected director Chloé Zhao’s breakout film The Rider, but I think I found its main character a little too impenetrable to really fall for the film as much as a lot of critics did. I would say this is not the case with her latest, since even though Zhao employs a lot of non-professional actors (much like in The Rider), here there’s a consummate professional anchoring it in Frances McDormand. Honestly, you could say this character is a bit of an enigma at times, not unlike Brady Jandreau in The Rider, but she has such a commanding presence and her inscrutability feels appropriate for this kind of restless soul that I was happy to go on a winding journey with.
The journey in question is put into motion by the 2008 financial crisis, as the text that opens the film explains the story of Empire, Nevada, a small company town where basically all of the town’s inhabitants were employed by the local manufacturing plant. However, this all becomes a thing of the past when the crisis hit, the plant shut down, and basically everyone living there disappeared, relegating Empire to a ghost town. It’s a little vague as to how or when Fern, our protagonist (played by Frances McDormand) lost her job, but we catch up with her in 2011, not long after her husband has died.
She’s working a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center, seemingly happy just to be working while also seeming to be living with an emptiness in the wake of her husband’s death and living out of her van. However, she finds herself opening up to a new kind of lifestyle when one of her friends invites her to a gathering of self-described nomads. They’re mostly old people living off of social security benefits and seasonal work while living on the road (many of which are played by the actual “nomads” from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book that the film is adapted from).
Once Fern adopts this on-the-road lifestyle, the film continues on to be very episodic, as would seem fitting for a movie about someone movie from place to place with no designated home. A lot of the people Fern meets are strangers at first, but as we see Fern becoming friendly with them, she opens up with them and we as an audience get to know this type of person that often gets pushed by the wayside of our society. The other nomad that Fern gets closest to is David (David Straithairn), who she first encounters at a meet-up and also works a few various jobs with. David seems like a potential love interest at first, but the movie (fortunately) never quite veers into that territory, as it would have made it a very different movie. Because at the end of the day, Nomadland is about Fern finding herself, regardless of whatever humans help her get to that point along the way.
I’m having a bit of a hard time pinpointing why this film stands out when I feel like I’ve seen quite a number of road movies with a neo-realist bent like this. I think one thing that helps is that other than the anchor of Frances McDormand, the movie does a good job of never feeling aimless even if it appears to be a film about human aimlessness. Nomadland is just structured enough to feel like it’s leading somewhere and that all its little detours will pay off in the end, even if not every single side-character or side-plot necessarily pans out that way. Also, I think the fact that the film grounds itself in the economic hardships of the recent past while adding a layer of documentary-style timeliness also adds to making these characters feel even more compelling and lived-in.
Additionally, I think it works in Nomadland’s favor that despite its documentary influences and aspirations of realism, it does also add in just a tiny bit of Hollywood sentimentality amidst a bunch of strikingly un-Hollywood realities. Still, I would not say there is nearly enough sheen or playfulness in this movie to make me believe that Chloé Zhao is a suitable pick to direct a Marvel movie. Honestly, it might be the weirdest choice I can think of as far as directors tapped to helm a superhero movie. But if it’s the price she has to pay for getting enough funding to make another Nomadland, then hey, why leave that road less traveled?