‘Nomadland,’ the American West and a parable for uncertain times

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There is a beautifully shot scene in the middle of Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” in which Fern, the film’s protagonist (played by the incomparable Frances McDormand), reaches the geological formations of Badlands National Park in South Dakota and explores its natural wonders — the sun hitting her face and shining off the rocks in a way that is almost completely immersive for the audience. A few scenes later, there is another moment wherein Fern has an emotionally intimate conversation with a fellow nomadic friend David (David Strathairn) as they clean dishes in a café off of a South Dakota interstate. The fact that both of these wildly different scenes are equal in their beauty is a testament to the skill of this film’s seasoned actors and to the quiet brilliance of writer-director Zhao’s project. 

“Nomadland” follows Fern, a woman who finds her life upended as the gypsum plant she and her husband work at shuts down and renders her small hometown of Empire, Nev. a ghost town. Not too long after, her husband passes away suddenly, and Fern chooses to sell all of her belongings to travel and live in a van as she makes her way across the American West, working different odd jobs at places like diners and Amazon package centers. The movie follows Fern as she ventures out into the unknown, interacting with all sorts of people and communities. 

I will be the first to admit it — that description makes the film a hard sell for most audiences due to its intimate and everyday subject matter. It also makes it difficult for me to properly express how, in these seemingly trivial day-to-day adventures in Fern’s life, the movie still manages to cement itself as a necessary portrait of working-class America in the 21st century and as one of the best movies of the 2020/early 2021 season, garnering six Oscar nominations such as Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Actress for McDormand. 

Why does it work so well, then? The appeal is that the production is a series of big risks that pay off in unimaginable ways. Zhao’s project is about the risks Fern takes in traveling through the modern American frontier by herself with no sense of stability or “home” in the traditional sense, interacting with old friends and unorthodox nomad communities along the way. It’s about the casting risk of having McDormand and Strathairn as the project’s only “real” actors, as most of the other characters are real modern nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves or others. It’s about the risks Chloe Zhao takes in making a movie with a slice-of-life structure, an especially high-risk creative choice as a woman of color when many POC filmmakers feel pressured to get involved with the industry in ways that magnify audience reach. Zhao chooses an unconventional route instead, examining a national identity through one protagonist.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the format and the storytelling could have flopped extravagantly. Zhao, however, has trod this ground before (see 2018’s excellent “The Rider”) and pulls off the necessary balancing act at the heart of the movie in a way no other filmmaker of her generation could have. The up-and-coming filmmaker, a recent winner of the Golden Globe for Best Director and nominee for the Oscar in the same category, is known for being at the head of productions that employ human storytelling, striking cinematography and more. Her storytelling craft is excellent, and this film is a perfect example. “Nomadland” is political without beating you over the head with a message. It’s emotional without being a sappy sob story. 

To say much more about the movie and the small, quiet moments that make it such a violently enjoyable and touching experience would be to do it a disservice. Why not take the plunge with an open mind and heart to see the adventure for yourself?

“Nomadland” is now available to stream on Hulu

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