By Kevin Muller
Nomadland stars Frances McDormand, in preparation for her role as Fern, lived out the nomad lifestyle for a few months prior to filming. The goal was to mimic the authentic nature of the 2017 non-fiction novel written by Jessica Bruder, which presented the lives of Americans who live their lives on the road. McDormand, who is also a producer on the project, wanted a director to bring out the beauty of the book, so she grabbed relatively newcomer Chloe Zhao, to bring levity and respectfulness to a lifestyle most of us would never be able to endure. Does it all work, or is it a bore?
Life has thrown the ultimate curveball at Fern. After years of working at a Gypsum plant, the business shuts down, leaving her, not only in financial strain, but also questioning her life. This, on top of the recent death of her husband, propels her to leave everything behind and live her life on the road. There, she starts to discover the beauty of America, through the people she encounters, the stories they tell, the American landscape, and everything that comes along with this lifestyle.
That is basically the summary of the plot, which means this film is more of an experience steered by Zhao, and it is an extraordinary one. The gears must all work together to make this work. One of the most important parts of a road movie is presenting the environment through the lens of a gifted cinematographer. In order to bring out that beauty, Zhao, who has made two full length films, once again turned to her frequent collaborator, Joshua James Richards. His work hijacks your eyes, creating a strong argument why you should see this on the big screen, or a large and high-end television. Richards should have the cinematography Oscar in the bag. His work is visual poetry.
While on the road, Fern runs into many people who have lived as nomads for countless years. Instead of hiring actors to try to emulate her fellow nomads, Zhao cast real people to contribute to the film. They don’t look or move like Hollywood actors, so their stories come from a place of purity and realness. It is this decision that elevates the film. Zhao perfectly walks the line of romanticizing this life and showing the negative points of it too. For every meaningful moment that Fern has through a conversation, a community event, a heart to heart with fellow nomad, we also see the hardships she faces. This can range from loneliness, judgement from her family, hesitation from herself, unsteady paychecks, and issues that happen with her van, which she names “Vanguard”. Bruder’s book comes into play by showing how these people survive with little to no means possible. It is fascinating to watch, but never feels like it is showboating. If you didn’t know who Frances McDormand was, and you watched parts of this film, you’d think it was a documentary. It all feels so authentic and natural in its presentation.
McDormand is what really makes this all work. Fern isn’t part of the novel, just a creation for the film to push the narrative. Again, what could have been an opportunity to make the film all about her, is thoroughly avoided. Yes, she acts as our surrogate and is given a respectful backstory, but McDormand works with Zhao to create both a real and memorable character that is just passing through this world. Fern is on screen the entirety of the film, and McDormand never misses a step or bores the audience. Mainly, as stated above, we see how she reacts to the good and bad times that life throws at her. She isn’t a perfect character, but many moments in the movie she can feel withdrawn, stubborn, and deflects good that comes her way. It seems that she is running away from her past. There is a sadness to her that she lets out when she is alone taking in the scenery. This, along with Richard’s camera work, communicate as much as a monologue would. McDormand also plays into her skill as a comedian too. Her 2018 Oscar win for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri displayed how she can balance both the comedic elements as well as the dramatic ones. This skill prevents Fern, and the film, from becoming too dour. It wouldn’t be a shocker if she is once again holding that gold trophy come April.
Nomadland is the quintessential American movie. It is a respectful, informative, and impeccably made film that is headlined by an actress who is consistently incredible. It is a film that sneaks up, and stays with you way after the credits.
I am giving Nomadland a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!