Frances McDormand stakes her claim for a third Oscar win with this dreamlike drama

By: Steve Pulaski

Based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland concerns Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow whose entire town of Empire, Nevada essentially closed along with the local US Gypsum plant. The plant was responsible for mining sheetrock along with employing most of the residents; its closure led to the dissolvement of the town’s zip code, rendering it a ghost town.

Couple that with the 2008 recession and Fern is effectively “houseless,” as she calls it, resorting to living out of her van and taking whatever job she can. From seasonal gigs at an Amazon warehouse to a campground manager at an RV park, she can’t afford to say no to any money. With nowhere to go, she hauls up to Quartzite, Nevada, where she mingles with fellow nomads.

Nomadland is a fine example of a movie about a type of person we rarely get to see in the movies. Fern is a fascinating character, unglamorously played by Frances McDormand, hot off a relatively recent Oscar win for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and staking a claim for a third trophy. Chloé Zhao is deeply empathetic towards Fern, not easily contextualizing her. Fern feels like a human being, with various attributes that make her appear contradictory at first. She has a restless spirit, seldom appearing comfortable, but warm and receptive to company. There’s a bit of reservation in the presence of others, but noble folks like Swankie and Bob (real-life vandweller Bob Wells, who wins his scene in the third act) break through her shield and gift her some advice.

Worth noting: outside of McDormand and David Strathairn, who plays Dave, Fern’s closest friend, all of the performers here are real-life nomads. They all have their own moving sequences. I was especially taken by Fern’s conversation with Derek, a youngster out in the open country, who is struggling to find ways to articulate his experiences in letters to his girlfriend. “Have you tried poems?,” Fern asks him before reading William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” which was part of her wedding vows. I elected to memorize that sonnet as a requirement for an ancient English literature class in college. I could’ve used that scene for multiple reasons about five years ago.

Sure, Zhao could’ve rooted Fern’s nomadic lifestyle in capitalism’s failings. It would’ve been justified, but maybe not as moving. Sometimes with film, we simply want to feel, and Zhao assures we do with the direction she does take. She’s nonjudgmental in handling Fern’s story of self-reliance and finding solace in her own existence. This journey, however, requires some patience. There’s a great deal of longing, looking in Nomadland. It’s as much a collage of images of the flyover areas of the United States many of us don’t get a chance to visit as it is an intimate character study.

To achieve such beauty, Zhao reunites with cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider), and the two make visual magic highlighting deserts, mountains, and nature at its most graceful. Longshots of the horizon — sometimes scored to Ludovico Einaudi’s pensive orchestration, sometimes letting the birds and other creatures dominate the soundtrack — are common. Zhao isn’t shy about showing the unsavory side of the nomadic lifestyle: including but not limited to freezing nights, defecating into a bucket, and picking up a box only to have all your belongings shatter in an instant.

So much of Nomadland is beautiful without beautifying what is often a gritty, rough-and-tumble experience for those who choose this lifestyle. Zhao softly suggests Fern could be running from the grief and pain she carries following her husband’s death. That’s an element of the film, but I’m not convinced it’s the ultimate takeaway. Fern’s decision to take what the world gives her in the most rustic sense isn’t far removed from what so many Americans have done for years. Maybe nevermore than throughout the pandemic. The company you keep is important, but survival is the ultimate goal. Most of us are trying to survive and see another day. Nomadland is an ode to those getting through the getting by, whatever the hell that’s supposed to look like.

NOTE: Nomadland is now available to stream on Hulu.

Grade: A