Nomadland – movie review

In Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand) is a loner. The highly capable 61-year-old has little to her name. She’s averse to traditional societal norms. Now she leads a frugal, nomadic life with memories of the past with her now-departed husband.

Fern has always been a free spirit. But she settled in a nondescript house in rural Nevada so hubby Beau could work in an environment he loved. Then a recession hit and the mining industry on which the town relied collapsed, and the place was abandoned. Beau died and Fern is alone. She has an old van and travels from one camping ground to another in America’s West, although sometimes not even that. On occasion, she simply parks in the middle of nowhere. Fern picks up work wherever she can get it, never for a long period though. She’s not fussy and she doesn’t mind hard work. What she does mind, though, is standing still.

She befriends a number of grey nomads along the way, but never allows herself to get too close to them. It’s not that she’s unfriendly or shy, but she’s also clearly uncomfortable with going much beyond pleasantries. One man in particular, Dave (David Strathairn), is keen on her. They keep bumping into one another, but her attitude remains as it was.

McDormand (Three Billboards…) gives another virtuoso performance in the lead. The film is firmly her vehicle. She’s so talented and authentic that she effectively “becomes” Fern. Her non-verbal cues are as critical to her portrayal as her dialogue. Real life nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells play Fern’s mentors and comrades, and make a fine fist of it.

Much credit must go to Zhao (The Rider) for her insightful screenplay, based on a book by Jessica Bruder. Importantly, Zhao allows Fern to “breathe”, which is an important part of her direction (she has also edited the film). The gentle score by Ludovico Einaudi aids that cause, while Joshua James Richards gives life to the vast, often arid landscape through his cinematography.

As good as it is, Nomadland’s pacing and treatment make it a small audience, independent movie, one to satisfy the purists.

Alex First

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