After losing everything in the Great Recession, a woman embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
‘Nomadland’, Chloe Zhao’s critically acclaimed drama, is a movie about a woman who leaves her hometown and travels across the country after her husband died and the only industry in town closes down. It’s a character study of a woman grieving for her husband and a past that is now gone, and of making the decision to embrace a new lifestyle, free of the trappings of living within what would be considered ‘normal’ society. I’ve always found myself drawn to films about people who choose to live a life that I know deep down I wouldn’t be bold enough to live myself, and I thought ‘Nomadland’ really drew out the appeal of leaving everything behind and starting afresh.
The film opens with some real life background about the town of Empire in Nevada, a town that has essentially been abandoned after the only industry in town closed down almost a decade ago. It was this town where our protagonist Fern, played by Frances McDormand in a typically perfect performance where you can’t really imagine anyone else in the role, made a life with her husband who also worked at the US Gypsum plant. Faced with a new reality after his passing, Fern decides to head out in a camper van to live a different kind of life. Fern is strong and resolute but I always like that McDormand hints at something deeper going on underneath the tough exterior and much of what is left unsaid with regards to the past she left behind is as important as what is. My favourite parts of the film are some of the simple encounters Fern has with different people she comes across on her journey, some more consequential than others, where the characters philosophise about life and how they fit into it. Some of these scenes are incredibly moving, such as one between Fern and real life nomad Bob Wells (playing a version of himself) where he beautifully articulates the appeal of the nomad lifestyle.
Most of the performers in ‘Nomadland’ are relative unknowns or are people like Wells playing versions of themselves, with the only other actor you’re likely to recognise in the movie being David Strathairn as Dave, a man who crosses paths with Fern on several occasions. There’s a conventional route that you expect this story to take and it hints at it, but one of the things I really liked about ‘Nomadland’ is its refusal to seek out resolutions or typical conclusions to character arcs – everyone here is just passing through and that’s part of the beauty. There’s a simplicity to ‘Nomadland’ that is really appealing and I found it to be a film that gently works its way into your soul.
America is a vast, beautiful country and ‘Nomadland’ more than any recent film outside of the western showcases it in all its epic, rugged glory, and I found it sent a shiver down my spine on more than one occasion. This is a movie that I really connected with and I found it to be quite profound to be honest, and I can see it being a movie that I’ll return to at different stages of my life.
Directed By: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Peter Spears and Tay Strathairn