It’s 2011 and after the local US Gypsum factory closes down, fifty-year-old Fern, as played by Frances McDormand, is without a job. Recently widowed and with her town now deserted, she’s also without a life. Fleeing the dustbowl that it has become, Fern must trade in her remaining possessions for a beat-up camper van so she can venture westwards for work. -But what will be waiting for her? How will modern America embrace a dying generation who can only afford to live in their campers and cars? Fern is about to find out…
... this might not be a future you want to acknowledge but in McDormand's hands, it's a deserved Oscar statuette waiting to be conferred.
Opening largely without an accompanying score, Chloé Zhao‘s third feature film is a vacant stare into America’s future. By placing Frances McDormand’s Fern in a series of increasingly isolated compositions, Nomadland quickly communicates how quickly real-life can distance itself from people. Nearing both the end of their lives and any demand for their skill sets, McDormand’s Fern finds herself consigned to a nomadic underclass. Whether it’s seasonal packing at the Amazon fulfilment centre or temporary cleaning jobs, this isn’t the rose-tinted retirement that anybody wants to talk about.
Travelling silently alongside those who are similarly affected, Frances McDormand’s cropped-hair appearance is a perfect blend for their communal angst. Green in the beginning and at the mercy of other kindly strangers travelling the same road to nowhere, this might not be a future you want to acknowledge but in McDormand’s hands, it’s a deserved Oscar statuette waiting to be conferred. This is because half-way through, you’re going to catch your breath. In listening to the stories of those that Fern encounters, you’ll suddenly be struck by a level of intimacy that can’t be taught in acting classes – and this is because many of Nomadland’s cast are real people. When they talk, they do so from another place than the dramatic services of a movie script and you will gradually realise that the shift between revelation and intrusion is intentionally deliberate. In fact, in respectfully balancing their testimonies, Zhao‘s Nomadland is imbued with an unfathomable depth which, in my opinion, successfully skirts the oft-derided line between drama and documentary.
By being able to reverentially live in both worlds, Nomadland neither labours nor drains its subject matter. Whether listening to the campfire laments of people whom the modern age has tossed away, their home truths come at you without warning or blushes. As both a document and a narrative that lives within its subject matter, this is not a film directly about homelessness but the death of a previous life that you once thought was yours.
With poverty gradually stripping away their past and their health stripping away their future, Nomadland becomes a sober reflection on what it is to be old in rural America. Operating on almost a level of survivor’s guilt, widowed Fern is scared to let anyone in too close. And with this in mind, the tender talents of David Strathairn enters the frame, seeming to offer hope. A flickering ember of a feel-good ending, his character David offers Fern a hand to walk into the lonely night with – and crucially – this is where the movie’s second main theme lies – the death of hope. Having lost everything once can you really ever allow yourself to be hurt again? And in this question, Fern has been continually running away from the start of the movie.
Ultimately, in a film whose deliberate sense of understatement is key to its intention, this skilful adaptation of Jessica Bruder‘s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century has much to recommend it. Similarly travelling the same desolate road of regret that director Karl Golden’s Bruno did, this is another postcard from the edge which many are already silently living.