Nomadland review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman who used to living on her own since the death of both her husband and her town. Her life doesn’t seem happy but it doesn’t seem sad either. There’s a certain comfort she finds in living out of her car, traveling America from state to state in search of work. A film such as this could easily have been another commentary on the class struggle by making Fern a figure that is bitter and angry. She instead just feels a certain emptiness, quietly contemplating everything with her life on the road.
Her travels are unique. She hooks up with a group of other nomads who congregate in the desert and she not only trades for goods but learns certain skills, such as how to make a toilet out of a bucket. She also wakes up early one morning to witness an amazing sunrise. Fern says nothing during this scene, simply passing by other nomads and watching the light envelope the land, listening to the sounds of passing cars by the nearby road.
Fern’s life is one where she feels like she is a constant passenger. She bounces from job to job and sometimes runs into familiar faces. It may somebody from the nomadic group or someone she used to know from her days before the road. Her newest acquaintance she meets is Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow nomad who finds himself fancying Fern. Despite Dave’s many attempts to get to better know Fern, she’s not as keen to pursue a new relationship, especially when it is off to a rocky start. But for Fern, it’s more than just a broken heart. She just can’t bring herself to the concept of settling down.
She is given multiple opportunities to do just that and refuses for one reason or another. With her family, it’s easy to understand. She’s looked down upon by others and finds herself unable to stay in a home where people don’t have the highest opinion of her. Despite having borrowed money for car repairs, she doesn’t want to be known as the leech down the hall. However, with David, it’s a bit more complicated. The house of David’s offspring is a place that welcomes her but she just doesn’t feel that this is a place she can fit in. It may just be too perfect or just not her scene. Whatever the reason, she can’t stay long. She can’t stand staying longer in anyplace anymore.
Director Chloé Zhao gives her film this real quality and not just because she found actual American nomads to appear in this film with mostly ad-libbed dialogue. She shoots America in this somber and reflective light that lets the audience take in the experience of Fern in a manner that feels free of judgment. The soundtrack never tries to force an emotion nor do the many cold and light shots. The film is also expertly edited to only spend just enough time in certain places and with certain shots, never letting the camera linger longer than it needs to.
Nomadland may be a bit underwhelming or confounding for some in that it takes this almost ambiguous approach to Fern’s journey through 2012 America. Personally, the film just resonates in a way that invites the viewer in, trying to figure out Fern and just what she feels by the climax where she passes through her abandoned town. She seems like a ghost but not one that is haunted by the past. She may be searching for something but all we know for sure is that she has another destination in mind by the time she gets back to her van.