The world of nomads is explored by director Chloé Zhao, who teams up with two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand for the film Nomadland from Searchlight Pictures. The film is an adaptation of the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. Set in 2011, Nomadland follows Fern (McDormand) on a journey to find purpose after losing her job when the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down.
Fern worked there for years along with her husband, who recently passed away. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings, purchase a van to live in, and travel the country searching for work. Along the way, we follow Fern on her journey as she finds seasonal work at Amazon, works as a cook, and meets real life nomads Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May. Fern even strikes up an intimate friendship with David (David Strathairn) in the film.
I walked into Nomadland off the strength of the previous works of McDormand, as she always brings strength to her roles. McDormand is one of twenty-four performers who has achieved the Triple Crown of Acting. I’m a firm believer that McDormand could do a one-take movie sitting in a drive-thru, and she would make the role enjoyable.
Naturally, McDormand is good, and I’m willing to bet that she will be at the top of numerous critics’ lists for Best Actress. McDormand does bring her usual flair role to the performance, and the methods she took to prepare for the role shine bright in the film. Some of the choices that McDormand’s character makes I could identify with. Such as leaving what you know when someone passes away or refusing help from your family even when, deep down, you know it may be the best route to take.
To my surprise, even in these dire situations that Fern finds herself in, I respected her decisions and uncompromising approach. Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May, who are real life nomads, provide solid supporting work portraying themselves. In contrast, David Strathairn is commendable whenever he shows up on the screen.
I was also fond of the cinematography by Joshua James Richards and the look he gives to America. Sadly outside of that, there wasn’t much else that Nomadland has going for it. Chloé Zhao has good intentions, and I respect her artistic decision to set the film in 2012 – 2013 following the aftereffects of the 2008 recession. The opening text explains that the recession wiped out Fern’s former zip code. A chill went down my spine reading that, especially when you consider where the country is now.
Zhao’s pacing of the film also works, and she makes the wise decision to keep the movie under two hours. For me, though, it was just missing something that I’m still trying to put my finger on. Chloé Zhao is a capable director though, and I look forward to her Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, Eternals, later this year.
Nomadland is a road trip type movie focusing on embracing a minimalistic and nomadic lifestyle centered on van dwelling, with a significant lead by Frances McDormand. I recommend the film for viewers who enjoy Frances McDormand, but mainstream viewers may be off by the film’s pace.
Final Grade C
Nomadland opens in limited release on February 19th, 2021.