Nomadland (Review)

If there’s a frontrunner at this year’s Oscars it might be Nomadland. Join us as we explore how this fascinating film sets itself apart from both the other competitors and the traditional road trip movie.

American cinema has long inhabited wide open spaces. From pioneers blazing dusty trails in our favorite westerns, to the open roads inviting engine roars of fast cars in action flicks, to the calm prairies of a midwestern drama. Americans like to define themselves by what they do outside of their homes. So unsurprisingly our films have often attempted to capture this fascination with mother nature. But there is one type of film in particular which best describes the relationship Americans have with their country: the road trip movie. 

Directed By: Chloe Zhao
Written By: Chloe Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
Release Date: February 19, 2021

The road trip movie exists in many different genres, but it stems from the appeal of the open road. The saying that life ‘isn’t about the destination, but the journey’ is something that Americans know all too well. We see the world around us as an escape from the stresses and troubles of our daily modern lives. Nomadland is a road trip movie which taps into that inert attraction of the unknown, but in a different way than what we are used to seeing.  

Road trip films start out with a destination in mind, and extract their entertainment appeal from the journey. The development of the plot and characters stems from dealing with unexpected situations. Characters usually are on vacation, or they are seeking some sort of fulfilment by leaving home behind. Nomadland doesn’t subscribe to these types of road trip movie traditions. Instead, it focuses on a character who is lost at the beginning of the film and has no choice but to embrace the expanse. 

Nomadland follows a woman named Fern who loses her husband and her employment in the great recession. She decides to become houseless, travelling the country for work and seeking fulfilment rather than living in one place. Without her husband she feels like she lost the anchor which gave her life purpose. As someone who doesn’t fit in with her family and isn’t very sociable, the only place she seems to find comfort is in herself. Her travelling can be seen as someone who is trying to find something, but will never be able to find it because she doesn’t know what she is looking for. 

Being lost is the crux of Nomadland, a fitting title. Traditional dramas dealing with tragedy are supposed to help us find our place in life. They often provide inspirational perspectives that we can use to refocus and appreciate what we have. Nomadland certainly has those moments which will make you smile and reflect positively upon treasured memories. But it is only playing off of them to deliver a much more important message. This is a film about coming to terms with loss as best as you can. It is about realizing how you will never be the same.   

How many films do we see which offer uplifting messages about loss? They tell us how those we have left behind will never be forgotten, and yet they inspire us to move on. They depict characters who struggle, but eventually find the light. Fern is a character who struggles, and struggles, and struggles some more. Even when she gets a glimpse of light, she runs away from it because she is not able to move on. She is someone who has come to know isolation as comfort, and sees anything else as a betrayal to her lost love.

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

The film takes place almost a decade ago. You may be skeptical to find its relation to our current struggles besides the fact that there are people who live their lives today just as Fern does in the film. To me the message of the film is simple: treat others well. Movies are often about trying to bring people together, to help them understand something we have in common. Nomandland is showing us how we may never understand someone else, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect them. Each of us has our own struggles, and we will never be able to adequately convey that struggle to another person so that they can feel it in the same way we do. Instead, we have to realize our own limitations when it comes to understanding the lives of people who are different from us. 

This type of understanding comes as the film meanders its way from one location and interaction to the next, often without a single meaningful line of dialogue. As Fern meets with others who share her lifestyle, we feel like we become part of the community. These people are not brought together by close proximity, but instead by a common motivation to get out on the road and perpetually put their problems behind them. These are people who have shed the conveniences of modern life because there’s nothing there for them. They don’t have any other option, and so their solace is in others who live the way they do. The fact that many of the characters in the film are portrayed by people who actually live this way makes it feel all that more realistic and discernable. 

The film is brought to life with amazingly vivid cinematography. It is full of panoramic muted tones, but with crisp shadows to define the smallest details. There always seems to be a conflict between close up shots and the vastness of scenery to create the uncomfortable motivation which propels Fern to keep moving forward. Indeed, the film feels like it takes place perpetually at sundown or sunup. Everything is in a state of uncertain change, contrasting the battles between the dark and the light. The only constant is Fern herself, portrayed with a weary vigor by Frances McDormand. She really embraces the role of the shy adventurer, afraid to change her life, but always enveloped in it.

Director Chloe Zhao does a tremendous job of extracting the insight from Fern’s explorations. The film itself is framed halfway between a documentary and a traditional road trip adventure drama. Having a character such as Fern through which the audience can experience this way of life makes it feel like less of a choice and more of a necessity. Many people may see the way these people live and pass judgement upon them. But through Fern’s eyes Zhao gives us a reason to treat them with compassion. She gives us a perspective about why and how someone has chosen to live this way, if you can call it a choice. And despite featuring a minimal level of dialogue Nomadland is quite proficient at leaving its mark. Credit belongs to the director who makes a film which is the perfect example of depressingly beautiful. 

In these trying times maybe people don’t want to see a film that will depress them. While other films making noise at awards ceremonies discus of-the-moment issues with straightforward intent, Nomadland isn’t as immediate. This is what helps it stand apart, even if it is relaying the same message at a base level. It is a more subtle reminder about the golden rule, but no less impactful. But as much as the film is a tragedy, it finds beauty in the bleakest places. No, Nomadland doesn’t explain how to live with struggle, only that life with struggle is normal. It’s about seeking solace for yourself, whatever that may be. In these struggling times that is as poignant a lesson as any.