It’s difficult to describe to a reader what Nomadland provides as a film in words – in many ways it’s about a lot of things and in other ways it’s about nothing at all. The synopsis certainly sounds intriguing. In a way you could imagine that it’s one of those films that explore the problems of today, be those social, political, or economical so as to build to some meaningful theme or crescendo. One would even assume the film is attempting to say something specific about the American system or capitalism, or even life itself. But to me, Nomadland is a blank slate. It’s a film that isn’t making bold statements, it’s telling stories and it’s making a very concerted effort not to preach to its audience.
Simply put, Nomadland is about a woman named Fern (Francis McDormand) who is another victim of the Great Recession – in this film we follow Fern travel across America doing various jobs to make a living so she can survive her travels in her portable home (a renovated van) – in many ways this story isn’t necessarily about Fern, more so than it is about the world that director Chloe Zhao is trying to shed light on.
Zhao is trying to show us the forgotten people, those who have decided to abandon their old way of life for something new – she’s trying to show us their stories, their convictions, their reasons for living the way they do so that we as the audience may come to better understand these people and why they have chosen this lifestyle. All of this relates to Fern too; she’s just another wandering soul. In fact, it is my impression that Fern is used more as a vehicle to drive the narrative than a character to fully understand; I say this because, well, by the end of the film you still don’t quite understand who Fern is. In all honesty, this could just as easily be a fault of writing by Zhao as could a stroke of genius by her.
This film truly shines in Frances McDormand’s potently human performance; I say human because that’s the closest thing to describe the acting style she’s implemented here. McDormand makes a great effort to evoke those awkward human facial expressions one sees in their daily life. The way in which she delivers her dialogue is no exception here either. Simply, McDormand is superb, perhaps better than her role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2019).
Chloe Zhao does an impressive job at creating this world or more specifically, divulging a certain way of life in America. The end result is an incredibly absorbing experience that is achieved by the use of the camera and locations in the film. Nomadland contains a variety of shots that help deliver the subtext portrayed in this film. The camera usually remains quite close and intimate to Fern, allowing you to get closer into the world she interacts with. There are a few frames where the lighting is a bit off which can take you out of the moment. Zhao’s love of the more cerebral and documentarian style of filming, (like that of director Terrance Mallick) bleeds onto screen here.
The true sense of atmosphere of the film lies within the locations that have been used in this film and the camera’s ability to showcase these magnificent backdrops. These locations fit the aesthetic of the film aligning with Zhao’s vision and providing ambient sound that elevate moments of solitary contemplation. The film’s composition is impressively appropriate as it is quite simplistic, mainly only using a piano to conjure emotional reactions and mirroring the overall tone of the film.
Nomadland uses its powerhouse performance and cathartic emotive tone to show us not just a new perspective, but also show the audience a part of themselves that they too could be missing. Nomadland will by no means motivate you to explore the world like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but it may just help you understand it a little more. With our world feeling so confined in isolation — Nomadland provides a warming look at the outside world with a suitably somber tone.