Nomadland is a film that exists somewhere between reality and fantasy. It’s both unrelenting in its hand-to-mouth realism and transcendent, with a dreamlike storyline. The first thing you might notice is how little distance there is between the filmmaker Chloe Zhao and her subject matter, which is a little frustrating, but eventually makes for a powerfully sublime experience.
As it begins, Nomadland feels like a docudrama about capitalism gone wrong. Then at some point, the narrative becomes inconsequential — the rug is pulled out from underneath us and we’re spinning in space — a gap of time usually designated for exposition or pretension, neither of which exist in this film. This movie is too human to be pretentious and too honest to be expositive. In other words, love it or hate it, it’s pure independent cinema.
Based on the book by Jessica Bruder, Zhao’s storytelling is so finely tuned and masterful you won’t even discern its machinations. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a struggling widow who works part-time at an Amazon factory in Nevada. She’s lost everything to the recession and lives in her van. Once winter hits, Fern drives to Quartzsite, Arizona where a group of vagabonds live in a commune. Most of the people in the commune are retired, spit out by society, and forgotten. Zhao smartly casts real-life people, who are fascinating, and McDormand’s performance is so good that you can’t tell the difference. She’s “acting,” but you wouldn’t know it for a second.
This could’ve easily been a tired message movie about America’s impoverished state, but it’s not; it’s way more layered than that. Once Fern leaves the encampment, we catch glimpses of her backstory and slip into the cracks of her fortified persona. She doesn’t let anyone get too close, yet she empathizes with everyone she meets. She’s the classic American pioneer — consistently curious while remaining solidified within herself. Like Into the Wild or Wild without the “wow, look at this amazing journey” consciousness, Nomadland shows us people who aren’t necessarily escaping, as much as accepting their fate in a world gone awry. They aren’t really outsiders; they’re us.
Director Chloe Zhao’s second outing after 2017’s The Rider is a beautifully crafted exploration of the human spirit and the American landscape. There’s no doubt that the first half hour might be frustrating for some viewers, though. From the first frame, the movie never attempts to pull you in or create a conventional blueprint.
Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a “movie,” but rather, a glorified documentary. But then something magical happens and you realize that it’s both classic and completely groundbreaking. It almost feels like a Steinbeck novel filtered through a modern auteur’s gaze. Nomadland requires patience, but once you surrender to its silence and ambiguity, you will be transported. ❖