“Nomadland” review: A quietly powerful road movie for our time

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Ver Lumod

Frances McDormand traverses the American West with quiet determination in Chloé Zhao’s personal yet epic road movie “Nomadland.”

McDormand plays Fern, a widow who literally becomes a nomad. She was recently laid off from her job working for a gypsum mining plant when her hometown of Empire, Nevada folded during the Great Recession in 2010. Fern then sets out on a journey across the West with her trusty white van, which she calls Vanguard, and customizes as a mobile home. She later meets fellow nomads like herself, people without a house but never exactly lacking a home. She finds kindred spirits in them, even if sometimes she chooses to go at it alone.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, “Nomadland” portrays Fern as neither a good nor bad person; she just is. This serves as a nice change of pace from the usual steady stream of movies that thrive on narrative these days. Zhao portrays the character as if she is the subject of a documentary, or even someone out of a Wim Wenders road movie such as 1984’s “Paris, Texas.” The result is a refreshingly nuanced and practical person, which is the main force that guides “Nomadland” through.

Of course, none of this is possible without the amazingly brilliant performance from McDormand, who previously won two Oscars in the Best Actress category for the Coen brothers classic “Fargo” (1996) and 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She doesn’t need dialogue to sell Fern’s story; it’s all in her weary glances, whether into her fellow nomads or into the unknown frontier. The complexity of her character allows McDormand to apply what is basically her career-best performance in years. And now, her recent Best Actress nomination for this year’s Academy Awards is truly well-deserved.

Meanwhile, Zhao has had experience depicting the forbidding American terrain in film, judging from her previous works “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2017). “Nomadland” is in some way a summation of her fascination for the beauty that lies in these wastelands. The way Zhao shoots the frontiers reminds me of the Dawn of Man sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), especially in how understated yet beautiful they are shown. With help from her frequent cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao has brought it back from the grey confines of the city and the green boundaries of wildlife and into the arid grit of the desert. Aside from McDormand’s performance, “Nomadland” is also worth watching with its beautiful compositions which are also borne out of grit and grime.

Zhao’s latest film is quite a unique offering from what 2020 had to offer in terms of cinema. As mentioned before, it’s not bound by plot conventions, even if there’s a semblance of one in Fern’s brief dalliance with a shy suitor portrayed by David Strathairn. Instead, it is content to sit back and let Fern’s story unfold. The viewer gets to fully participate and ultimately understand Fern and her motivations. Did her husband’s death set her on an aimless path? Or is she merely content to live her life to the fullest after losing her job?

“Nomadland” provides a nice respite from the chaos of 2020 by focusing the beauty in little things. By choosing to bring it all back to simpler times, Zhao has created an understated masterpiece for our time.

To stream “Nomadland” on Hulu, click here.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry