Film Review: Nomadland
Director: Chloé Zhao
In Theaters 01.29 and Streaming on Hulu 02.19
If you’re a film buff, you’ve been hearing buzz about Chloé Zhao‘s film Nomadland for months now. That kind of hype machine can be detrimental, especially to a film as small and intimate as this one. My strong advice is to try to toss aside the baggage of any expectations that you may have at this point regarding how Nomadland completely reinvents the art of filmmaking and that Zhao and Frances McDormand will both reach out directly from the screen and literally touch your soul.
In 2011, Fern (McDormand) loses her job at the U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, where she worked for many years alongside her recently deceased husband. Left with no direction in life no job, and a house that she can’t hold on to and which holds too many memories, she decides to sell most of her belongings and purchase a van to live and travel the country searching for work in, taking the occasional seasonal job here and there.
A friend and co-worker named Linda invites Fern to visit a desert winter gathering in Arizona organized by a man named Bob Wells, who believes in the value of community and is working to create a support system for fellow nomads. Fern meets some of these fellow nomads, including Dave (David Strathairn, Sneakers, Good Night and Good Luck), a friendly fellow who takes a liking to Fern. At these meetings, she learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for life on the road.
Forget any preconceived ideas created by all of the buzz. The secret to appreciating Nomadland is to not make the mistake of waiting for the “plot,” as it were, to kick in because it never does—it’s just not that kind of film. Zhao has created a masterpiece of quiet introspection, one that is based on characters and capturing an unsung way of life in a way that almost unfolds like a loosely structured documentary. McDormand, by far one of our finest living actors, immerses herself in the role, and Fern could easily be viewed as a bleak and pitiable character, but McDormand and Zhao refuse to let her be one.
The lifestyle she is living is certainly a hard one for many of us to comprehend, but it’s the one she’s chosen, and there’s an undeniable appeal to the freedom that she has discovered. McDormand embraces every moment, every breath and every step of this rare inner and outer journey as Fern sees parts of the world—and of herself—she had no idea even existed. Strathairn is marvelous, and some of the most engaging characters are real nomads essentially playing themselves, especially Wells and the remarkable Charlene Swankie.
The picturesque cinematography by Joshua James Richards is a big plus, as the open road and scenery are a character in the film, and the minimalist piano and string-based score by Ludovico Einaudi is unforgettable. Nomadland is an immersive, cleansing experience that had me captivated from beginning to end, and it’s deserving of the love it’s getting. Still, that kind of praise can ruin a film, especially one that takes this long to be made available to be seen by mass audiences. It needs to be entered into with a relaxed, open mind, and if it’s not your all-time favorite, that’s very much OK. It doesn’t have to be in order to be a good film, and Nomadland is indeed a great film. –Patrick Gibbs