Nomadland – Film Review
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells
Director: Chloé Zhao
Synopsis: After the death of her husband and the loss of her job, a woman purchases a van to live as a modern day nomad…
Review: Home, is where the heart is. Yet, for each and every one of us, this is a word that can mean many different things. For some, it could be that place you grew up, or a place that’s significant in your lives, or it could be where a person’s family resides. No matter what this word may mean to each and every one of us, there’s a moment early on in this beautiful film from director Chloe Zhao that perfectly captures the essence of this story. As a character is talking with Fern (McDormand) about a tattoo she has:”Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you?” With just this one simple song lyric, from “Home is a Question Mark” by The Smiths, it encapsulates the heart that is beating at the centre of the film.
Years prior to the events of the film, Fern lived and worked in Empire, Nevada, with her husband. They both had jobs working in a US Gypsum plant, and it’s immediately apparent that these were joyful years for Fern. Yet, times have sadly changed. As a result of the Great Recession of 2008, the plant that was essentially the glue that held together Empire’s economy closed, and Fern has lost her job. But the most devastatingly blow of all, is the death of her husband. Following the collapse of the town’s economy, Empire has become a ghost town and all of the residents have since moved on. With all the attachments she once had to Empire now gone, she sells most of her belongings and purchases a van and starts a new life for herself as a modern day nomad roaming the heart of the American West, taking seasonal work wherever she can find it.
Adapted from the non-fiction novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, the premise of the film is simple, but sometimes there is beauty in the simplicity of life, and the film celebrates this. Thanks to the absolutely stunning cinematography from Joshua James Richards, the film shines a light on a way of life that many will no doubt be extremely unfamiliar with. There will be many who are no doubt accustomed to the metropolitan lifestyle of a city that never sleeps. The bright lights and the constant noise of the urban metropolis. A world where chatter is constant, life is almost always continually moving. There is none of that in this nomad lifestyle, just the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of the open road. Although such a lifestyle does come with its challenges, most notably the isolation.
It’s in no small part down to the extraordinary performance of Frances McDormand that pulls you into this story. Having won an Oscar a few years for her portrayal as a fierce and pissed off mother on the search for justice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this is a very different kind of role for the veteran actor. It’s much more withdrawn and subdued, and yet like the great actor she is, McDormand rises to the challenge in spectacular fashion. Aside from McDormand’s wonderful work, and an equally sincere performance from David Strathairn, as Dave, a fellow nomad who strikes up a close friendship with Fern. The rest of the film’s cast consists of real life nomads, and what could have been a somewhat risky move, instead turns out to be a masterstroke by Zhao. By choosing to have real life nomads, most of whom are portraying a fictionalised version of themselves, it lends an air of authenticity to the events that are being depicted on screen, which consequently helps you to sympathise with the people in this community, and the lives they lead.
The story does sometimes feels a bit aimless, and the pacing does stutter in one or two places. Yet, there’s a touching moment of poignancy throughout the film, that signifies the importance of remembering someone. An importance which is especially emotionally resonant for a community that could feel like it has been left behind by our modern day Capitalist society. In a similar vein to The Smiths lyric that is mentioned at the beginning, there’s another quote that feels especially emotionally resonant. “what’s remembered, lives.” Due to these emotionally trying times that we’re living in, where lots of people may have been feeling isolated and lonely, there’s a lot can be learned in being kind to one another, especially for those who may have a different lifestyle than what most people do.
Poignant and quietly moving, with a subdued but touching leading performance from McDormand, Nomadland is an emotional and celebratory study at an underrepresented way of life.