While the realities of the coronavirus have had major implications for everything from our own health and the welfare of our loved ones to the functioning of the global economy itself, global capitalism itself has produced a compounding series of pressures and failures for many communities over the last several decades. Job loss, health care crises, rising inequality, hastening ecological destruction, and inadequate social safety nets have created hosts of cascading problems for countless families the world over, and with present trajectories there is little reason to expect conditions to get anything but worse. It is in this context that Chloe Zhao’s excellent Nomadland hits hard: a story of a woman who takes to the road after having nothing left to lose, the film is an emotionally rich tale anchored by a complex central performance.
Fern (Frances McDormand) once lived in the little town of Empire, Nevada, a town built around a gypsum plant until the plant closed. Six months later, Empire has shut down and its zip code with it: Empire is no more. To make matters worse, Fern’s husband died, leaving her alone without resources or a home, and soon she takes her van on the road to string together whatever casual work she can find.
We spend the duration of the film following Fern on the road as she lives the nomadic lifestyle, meeting and leaving various nomadic communities, making friends on the road, struggling with the life, and finding precarious employment as it comes up. It’s a brilliant film that feels as though we aren’t watching the film as much as we are living it with her (a quality amplified by the fact that most of the people she encounters are not actors, but rather real nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves).
Director Chloe Zhao’s handiwork is deeply ingrained with every frame of the film: in addition to directing it, she also produced and edited the film and wrote its script (based on Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century). She adeptly coaxes exceptional performances from her cast of non-actors, and much is said in the script with often minimal dialogue.
The other pillar the film rests on is Frances McDormand, whose nuanced and complex performance brings Fern to life as she struggles with nomadic life. McDormand’s Fern is a multifaceted woman, running from her past traumas as much as she’s escaping a life that left her behind. She breaks her stoic visage to let kindness show through, yet she seems afraid of deep connection, of being tied down, of losing a free-roaming life despite its incessant struggles. While Fern herself feels like a woman forgotten by the world, McDormand’s performance is unforgettable.
At the end, Nomadland is poignant for many reasons. Besides the realism of this novel world Zhao has built, the film feels so achingly real precisely because deep down we know that the film’s world (one that has abandoned these characters to the whims of chance, drowned them in soul-choking monotony, or forced them on the road and into a precarious economic dance) is our own world, one that could do the same to any of us as we succumb to the ravages of chance and time and capital. It’s a feeling that’s become so clear over the last half-year (but let’s be honest: it’s been clear for much longer) and one that Nomadland has captured well, making it one of the year’s most poignant films.