“Nomadland” Movie Review


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     Writer / director Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is that film which comes along ever so often proving incomparable to anything else we have ever seen.  The touching story of a middle aged woman who has lost everything, and her subsequent journey across America in a cargo van, brings forth the kind of authenticity seen only in the best documentaries.  This is a film truly about something, exploring the inner depths of loneliness, loss, and the strange and obscure places we tend to find life altering inspiration.  If there ever was a complete film, “Nomadland”, boasting awards worthy performances, direction, screenwriting, and cinematography, may come the closest to achieving the perfection every filmmaker strives for.

     Empire, once a populated mining town in rural Nevada, was one of the many casualties across the country resulting from the Great Recession.  Imagine a place whose economic viability is solely dependent on one business operation and you’d have a picture of the town where Fern (Frances McDormand) and her husband lived for their entire adult lives.  He as a proud employee of the mining company, and her working support jobs within the community.  But suddenly a perfect storm of bad luck and tragedy hit the couple, with a terminal cancer diagnosis ultimately leading to his death, and the long time plant where they both worked shutting down, leading to a mass exodus of the town and hundreds of people without work or a place to live.

     So Fern decides to store her belongings and travel the country in a van, both to find work and to somehow create a new life after losing everything.  Seasonal jobs means parking and living at RV parks or desert encampments with others who are similarly situated.  And so we follow her from site to site, job to job, taking her through Northern Nevada and as far East as South Dakota.  She meets several interesting characters along the way, many of which are actual nomads Zhao has cast in the film.  How real all of this feels is astonishing.

     Zhao works from a screenplay she adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book, a chronicle of her own journalistic experiences alongside people who have chosen to live on the road.  The film makes a compelling statement against our broken financial system that seems to leave behind many who find themselves in circumstances well beyond their control.  For Fern, she had lost her husband and was forced to walk away from a home that was now worthless.  After all, who would buy a home in a place where the primary economic driver was permanently shut down?  We buy homes for both the promise of a future and the ability to build a strong financial foundation.  But what happens when you don’t see a winning return on that bet?

     The subculture sees people with very little, often with a mere few precious possessions or heirlooms they have room for in their ultra small living spaces.  When someone is in need, it seems everyone tries to support one another, whether it be through trading a sandwich for a cigarette, or alerting someone to a perspective job opening at a tourist stop a couple states away.  Fern has only been at this for about a year (the story takes place in 2011), but her likable personality and clear empathy for others allows her to survive and in many cases flourish in the role of providing comfort for many who have fallen on hard times.

     For McDormand, one of our most exceptional acting talents who has twice won a Best Actress Oscar (“Fargo” -1996 & “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” -2017), she may very well be on her way to winning a third trophy.  Her performance is the clear heart and soul of the film, having created a persona that seems to represent so many who share a similar plight.  She has her own story, and yet she sits and listens attentively to everyone she comes across.  But it’s her solo scenes that seem to really elevate the role beyond that of a typical character in a road movie.  As we follow along with Fern as she navigates through a series of never-ending set backs, Zhao creates a number of scenes that contain some very personal moments.  Some are meant to depict the harshness of this kind of life, while others allow the audience to feel the emotions that are running through her as she begins to discover a peaceful serenity while beholding some of the most beautiful landscapes throughout this country. 

     If you’re familiar with the term “magic hour” within the realm of filmmaking, cinematographer Joshua James Richards puts on a master’s class in the utilization of this time of day for a number of gorgeous shots throughout the film.  This is the hour just prior to sunset where the crew has a few precious minutes to get the scene shot before losing natural light for the day.  The orange, pink, and purple hues emanating from the sky, provide the right tone for the many sequences depicting Fern’s journey.  It’s as if each and every one of Chao’s compositions had the benefit of the perfect sunset to go along with the beautiful wide angle shots of snow capped mountain ranges and national park quality views.

     The only real question is will Fern continue this life after a year on the road?  Or will she finally come to terms with her tragic past and take one of several offers from both family, as well as one of her former road buddies, Dave (David Strathairn), to once again live with a roof over her head.  But like all great films, some questions remain unanswered.  There’s a mystery as to the path Fern will ultimately choose.  In a strange sort of way, she seems content.  Likely for the first time in a long time.  When you finally achieve inner peace, it’s difficult to change course and potentially give that up.  In a world where people struggle mightily to somehow find their way, Fern seems to have things just how she want them.  GRADE: A