Nomadland review: Chloé Zhao crafts a harrowing journey of self-discovery

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved
Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved /

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a truthful, harrowing, and ultimately beautiful exploration of loneliness and identity, anchored by Frances McDormand.

If Chloé Zhao brings even the tiniest amount of talent that she displayed in Nomadland to her upcoming superhero film The Eternals, then the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in very good hands. The first ever film to snag the top prize at both Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a stunning achievement — an honest, vulnerable portrait of self-exploration and solitude set against the backdrop of a community that America has left behind.

The film stars Frances McDormand as Fern, the wife of a now-deceased miner. After the Great Recession results in the closure of her town’s mine and the discontinuation of her area code, Fern (who by now is in her 60s and should be well on her way to retierement) is left with nowhere else to turn and begins adapting the lifestyle of a van-dwelling nomad. As she begins to grow accustomed to her newfound nomadic lifestyle, Fern forms close bonds with other van-dwellers, and explores the far reaches of the United States, discovering the beauty, challenges, and loneliness that hallmark such a drastic change in lifestyle.

Like everything else about Nomadland, McDormand’s performance as Fern is beautiful in its simplicity. If you’re looking for grandiose speeches, large and dramatic arguments, or any kind of over-the-top performance, look elsewhere. There is no single standout moment that makes us think to ourselves, “Oh, this is what they’ll play on her Oscar reel.” Instead, every second she spends in front of the camera is the most revelatory. McDormand isn’t acting as Fern, she is Fern. She’s astoundingly natural in her posture, her often shifty and unsure gaze, the way she interacts with those around her. This is a woman who has grown used to solitude and uniformity, and who desperately seeks connection and a newfound lot in life, and is determined to get herself there.

McDormand’s performance is as honest as it is disarming. She has such sad eyes that make you ache every time she stares out into the distance in silence, and every blow she takes, you feel it along with her. Like so many of us, she is run down and tired, but there is a clear fierceness lurking beneath the surface that makes her such a compelling and relatable protagonist. When we look at Fern, we see someone who could very possibly be us in 40 years. Her role in the narrative is unquestionably as a sort of audience stand-in.

But Fern, often quiet and withdrawn, is also a reflection of who she’s with and the colorful characters she encounters on her travels — characters played by real-life nomads. Casting actual van-dwellers as the supporting actors is without question the best possible route Zhao could’ve chosen, because as great as McDormand is, the other nomads she spends her time with have an authenticity and a zest for life that cannot be faked.

Among the many friends Fern makes along the way are two particular standouts: Linda May and Swankie. Both women help show Fern the ropes of van-dwelling when she’s just starting out, albeit the two of them have different outlooks on life. Linda May is vibrant — just as brightly spirited as the flowers she wears in her hair, and she has a kind face that makes her an instantly endearing figure. She works with Fern at an Amazon factory, where the women fulfill packages together. And although they find ways to make each day joyous, there’s something incredibly disheartening about watching these women have to work at an age where the government should be taking care of them financially.

The more somber, but no less wisdom-filled figure is Swankie, a woman who travels the country after finding out that she only has a few more months to live due to terminal cancer. Swankie carries a similar kind of sadness about her that Fern does, but she also has a clear passion and appreciation for the beauty of nature. Even after she passes away, her spirit is honored in one of the film’s most emotionally potent scenes.

Zhao’s decision to cast actual nomads helps further drive home how the film has one foot in reality and one foot out of it. Though its lead is a fictional character played by an actress, the inclusion of Swankie and Linda May, as well as the distinctive filmmaking style, make Nomadland feel at times more like a documentary than a narrative feature. The film is based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and Zhao incorporates elements of that nonfiction approach to structure in order to most powerfully communicate her story.

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The cuts are long and lingering, often giving the audience time to appreciate its world-weary characters, or experience the gorgeous tableaus Joshua James Richards imagines. Shot after shot of Nomadland feels like something out of a painting — finding the beauty in the simplicity and majesty of rural America. This reverence for nature is contrasted beautifully by Zhao with the cramped living space Fern inhabits, making for a symmetry in both the film’s narrative and aesthetic qualities. It’s the kind of distinct cohesiveness that can only come from having the same director and editor. In Nomadland, Zhao unquestionably establishes herself as an auteur.

As impactful as its visuals and performances are, though, what’s perhaps most moving about Nomadland is that makes no attempts to slap you in the face with a “moral” or a “lesson” to walk away with. This is a film that leaves the decision-making up to the audience, never pushing you to think one thing over another, and instead opting to shine a light on this forgotten sect of Americana. But, as tragic as the nomads may seem, Nomadland also explores their resilience, and willingness to forge forward. Although their country has failed them, they don’t wallow or wait. They build their own beautiful, eclectic path, and along the way, foster their own community.

They flourish in spite of the government’s failings — and as beautiful as that self-reliance and bravery is, Nomadland is also tinged with a sense of loneliness and melancholy that haunts the film. Quite, ruminative, and above all else, honest, Zhao’s singular voice and vision propel Nomadland to near perfection. The beautiful cinematography, the charm of the supporting cast, and McDormand’s faultless performance make it a gripping and deeply emotional watch from start to finish. It will leave you stripped bare and feeling raw in the best way possible.

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Have you seen Nomadland? What’s your favorite Frances McDormand movie? Sound off in the comments below.