|© Searchlight Pictures
Nomadland is a movie that’s perhaps too beautiful to judge fairly.
by Jeremy Fogelman
I first saw the work of Chloé Zhao in 2018 with her surprisingly effective movie The Rider, which explored the dangerous world of bronco riders while utilizing real people playing fictionalized versions of themselves instead of just actors. There was a rawness and realness there, and while not all of the performances worked, most did and pulled you into their world. Chloé Zhao had a fascinating way of exploring a part of America that is rarely shown, and her follow-up has a similar idea in mind.
Nomadland is both written and directed by Chloé Zhao, based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, and shot by Zhao’s partner Joshua James Richards. The first note is that the movie is gorgeous, with epic shots of the American countryside, but that’s almost gilding the lily a bit.
We follow an actual actor this time (around the year 2011), Frances McDormand playing Fern, a recent widow who’s also lost her job and struggles to find a new one. So after trying locally for a while but having immense difficulty, she comes up with a potentially crazy idea to simply live on the road while looking for a new job.
For a while she scrapes by, although living in a car has many problems, aside from the legal ones. As the days creep into winter, the danger of living in a car increases and Fern takes an opportunity to check out a fascinating sort of shared community of “nomads” run by real life person Bob Wells (no offense to the guy, who seems friendly and open, but I could tell he was not an actor). The community is mixed, with some people like Fern just trying to get by, but others are more interested in eschewing the modern world and preferring to live life on the move.
We continue to follow Fern as she travels, often without dialogue, as we are simply given the opportunity to let the landscape sink in. Here and there more real life nomads playing versions of themselves drop by, adding Zhao’s now expected hyper-authenticity to a world that’s not quite fictional. I was also pleased to see one of my favorite character actors, David Strathairn, show up, amusingly named David to parallel the real life people with their own names. He’s a great actor, and he provided instant warmth and feeling to his scene with Frances McDormand.
As for her, the character of Fern provides a very complicated role for Frances McDormand, because Fern has a great deal of internality and much of the movie is slowly letting us experience the road just like she is doing. Underlying the performance, which is perhaps obviously great, is a story about the Americans that we don’t think about.
The ones that struggle and try to survive even as their systems fail them -- is it any wonder that some of them don’t want to rely on a single place anymore? For me, a home is a place of potential stability and peace, and I don’t really relate to the idea of never wanting to stand still -- but I can still understand it. The idea of wanderlust is a complicated one, but Fern never makes it any easier on us. She’s 100% on the outside, and if she’s so comfortable there, what does that say about the rest of us?
Nomadland is a very affecting movie in many ways, even if I personally think The Rider is better, it’s still one heck of a track record so far for Chloé Zhao, who is in a position to win even more awards and maybe make a legitimately good Marvel movie (she’s credited as a co-writer for The Eternals which certainly intrigues me). Whether it’s that or something else like the announced Sci-Fi Western Dracula movie, I’m certainly on board to see what she does next.