‘Nomadland:’ A Glimpse Into the Life of the American Nomad


Joshua James Richards

Frances McDormand and Director/Writer Chloé Zhao on the set of NOMADLAND (Photo by Joshua James Richards | Courtesy 20th Century Studios)

By Luke Jackson


The United States Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada was active for 88 years before closing its doors in January 2011, leaving a majority of the residents jobless and needing to relocate. Chloé Zhao’s third feature film “Nomadland,” follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a former citizen of Empire who lost her job, home and husband. Lonely, but stubborn and resilient, Fern — living out of a van — hits the road seeking seasonal work. As Fern does so, her friend (Linda May) introduces her to Bob Wells — and the idea of “van dwelling,” or being a modern nomad. Fern adopts this lifestyle and journeys through the U.S., searching for new peace and meaning. What Zhao gives viewers in roughly two hours is an absolutely gorgeous, authentic film that walks the line between reality and fiction.

One element that allows such authenticity is the choice to cast real-life nomads as the secondary characters. Linda May, Bob Wells and Swankie, among others, all play themselves in “Nomadland” — giving viewers a real taste of who these nomads are, their stories and what matters to them. We hear the simple, honest tales of individuals who have been removed from the larger system of society, rejected by the “American dream” — having found peace, solace and meaning in connecting with nature.  Zhao’s graceful directing paired with beautiful cinematography allows us to not just to hear these tales, but experience them as is if we are there in the moment. Through the use of close-up shots, we sit with these characters by the fire, explore landscapes and watch the world pass through the van windows. So often, this film feels more like a documentary rather than a narrative film.

Frances McDormand — as expected — delivers a powerhouse performance, anchoring us into the world of the nomads. Each subtle movement she makes is filled with emotion. McDormand will flicker her eyes in a direction, or give a slight movement in her mouth, bleeding an emotion into Fern that would be incapable of any other actor. This subtlety comes through most as Fern listens to her friends. I fell in love with Fern, not because of her lengthy monologues or deep intricate thoughts, but because of her ability to silently listen and observe. Whether Fern is taking in someone’s story, a foggy mountain vista or a lazily running creek, she is observing and soaking in each moment. McDormand’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal and may go down as a career-best.

Nomadland” shows us that life always moves forward. As if a never-ending, winding road is taking us up to the joyous highs or down to the devastating lows, it continues to move forward. Stability can be found, and we can sit and relax as life moves around us, as Zhao shows there is nothing wrong with stability and safety. However, she simultaneously displays that the alternative, constantly moving forward with life, is equally admirable.

Fern takes pride in her van, the open road and the space around her — a space that before this film I would have looked down on. There is a simple beauty in Fern’s pride, resilience and bravery. Chloé Zhao poured this beauty into her film and now I’m hooked, and absolutely thrilled to see what else she will give us down the road.

“Nomadland” is available to stream on Hulu.


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