“Nomadland” may be the perfect “sheltering at home” film.
It reveals a vast swath of the western United States and shows what one can do when everything seems to fall apart.
When the gypsum plant where she works closes, Fern (Frances McDormand) leaves Empire, Nevada, and takes to the road in her van. She’s new to the nomadic life but willing to do just about anything to stay afloat.
That includes taking a variety of jobs (at South Dakota’s Wall Drug, in a Nebraska beet processing plant) and enduring an awful lot of alone time. Worse, the weather doesn’t cooperate, the van is falling apart and relationships are sporadic at best.
Still, Fern endures. She bonds with others for short periods of time, then moves on.
Writer/director Chloe Zhao uses real nomads as some of Fern’s temporary friends. They add authenticity and, thanks to McDormand’s giving performance, fit perfectly.
Zhao makes much of quiet moments – sometimes frighteningly so – and never suggests what the future holds.
Throughout her journey, Fern runs into David (David Strathairn), another nomad, who’s on a similar, endless path. She takes care of him when he becomes sick, works with him at Wall Drug and encourages him to reunite with his son. He goes, but there’s a bond between the wanderers that doesn’t seem to break. That prompts her to visit his new life and make a decision about her own.
Zhao doesn’t stuff this with stray crises. She lets the story unfold, relying on McDormand’s ability to add the nuance.
Beautifully shot (the Badlands area has never looked better), “Nomadland” makes a western road trip a post-pandemic must and a bit of introspection a strong “maybe.”
When McDormand talks with those real nomads (Swankie and Bob Wells, in particular), this becomes incredibly heartbreaking. The stories ring true and touch at the base of what “nomadland” is all about.
While Fern’s sister doesn’t understand her choices, we do. This isn’t about a lifestyle. It’s about control. On the road, she’s in charge – for better or worse.
With McDormand in the driver’s seat, “Nomadland” doesn’t seem so daunting. It’s a trip many wouldn’t take but some would admire.
In a year marred by a pandemic, "Nomadland" insists there's a place for hope. Sometimes, it's just not where you'd expect it.