Nomadland, is a 2020 film directed by Chloe Zhao based on the book of the same name written by journalist Jessica Bruder. The non-fiction book was published in 2017 and followed Americans who were living the nomadic lifestyle in the Midwest. These nomads are typically older people who live out of campers, vans, cars, and trailers and while they travel, they work a series of seasonal jobs. The film, despite being fiction, revolves around the same subject as the book and some of the people who were documented in the book are featured in the film playing themselves. Zhao shows off some of her most wondrous work by following and telling the stories of a subculture many Americans and non-Americans don’t know exist.
What stands out immediately after watching this film is Frances McDormand’s portrayal of a widow named Fern who is new to the nomadic lifestyle after losing both her husband and her community. Fern had lived in the town of Empire, Nevada: a small company town for the United States Gypsum Corporation that once had a population of over 700 people before the plant shut down. Empire is a real town and the story told of the Gypsum company in the movie is also true. Chloe Zhao is known for bringing fiction and reality together in her previous work and Nomadland is no different.
McDormand embraces the character of Fern effortlessly. Fern is a character who is grieving and processing tragedy; she sometimes comes across as detached and uninterested in other people. Despite that, she is strong-willed, independent, and McDormand shines in this role. As a viewer, watching Fern embark on her day-to-day life on the road feels natural and McDormand gives an expressive performance despite the fact that there isn’t much dialogue.
The lack of dialogue in this movie is actually one of its many assets. The quiet, still moments tell a story and give the natural setting and land a chance to add to the story. The direction of Zhao also helps tell Fern’s story by showing and not telling. We can see that Fern is going through a long process of grieving without her ever coming out and saying that she is struggling, in fact she tries to hide the fact that she is struggling which is why the direction is even more impressive.
Nomadland doesn’t have a linear storyline and can be interpreted as sporadic; it could be argued that it doesn’t have a true plot, but I think that’s the point. This film isn’t plot driven, it is character driven and the characters who give this story life are brilliant. It doesn’t have a lot of action but that is what makes it feel real. In fact, this film is a breath of fresh air when looking at an industry oversaturated with action movies.
And what gives viewers a sense of heaviness without the action is the soundtrack. The music in this film is outstanding. Scenes where Fern is doing simple actions such as walking or driving are accompanied by a beautiful score composed by Ludovico Einaundi. The music in this film is filled with solemn piano melodies and pretty string sounds that add levity to the scenes. The score in this film stood out to me more than a score typically does and again, I accredit that to the lack of dialogue. This gives music a chance to shine brighter where it typically wouldn’t.
The lack of set in this film also makes Nomadland stand apart in a league of its own. All of Nomadland was filmed in real places and shooting took place in five different states: Nevada, Arizona, South Dakota, California, and Nebraska. The natural beauty of the western American landscape is a scene stealer. Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, and California’s San Bernardino National Forest are all on display in this film. I didn’t know some of these places even existed and I’m a U.S. citizen. The wide, horizontal shots of the landscapes are some of the most memorable parts of the movie. This movie made me eager to travel and see more. A lot of people watch movies to be taken out of reality, but I think Nomadland does the opposite. This film made me want to go see these places and experience what life and nature looks like in these areas. It made me want to understand a bittersweet reality of these RV-dwellers who trade in normalcy for a life on the road. The film also does truly bring watchers into the reality of these people because the individuals in these scenes are real life nomads and not actors.
Two characters that take the screen by storm, besides the fictional Fern played by McDormand, are Linda May and Swankie; these two are non-actors playing themselves. Linda May was the main focus of the book written by Jessica Bruder and her part in this film is exceptional. The scenes with Linda May and Fern feel very vivid and convincing. While watching these scenes take place I felt like I was watching a documentary not a fictional movie because you’re simply watching these characters live life and have natural conversations.
Swankie, an old, sickly woman who is always seen with her arm in a cast, is another character who makes this movie feel raw. Both of these women showcase the nomadic lifestyle and talk about their personal lives. Their personal stories and outlook on life brought tears to my eyes. They add a layer of emotional depth to the film and I think Zhao’s choice of having non-actors play themselves was a brilliant artistic choice. The movie would not be the same if it was all A-list actors and actresses. The movie feels the way it does because these are people demonstrating their real stories about resilience, not someone from Hollywood. They aren’t wearing fancy clothes or living in expensive places, they are being themselves in an experience they’ve actually lived.
By telling the stories of the real people, Nomadland makes a political statement about the working culture in the United States and the truth behind the “American Dream,” but it doesn’t dive deep into it. I think some might walk away feeling a little disappointed that that specific element wasn’t discussed in more detail, but I don’t think it makes the movie feel any less impactful. The film still got the point across just by touching the surface and that is okay. This movie is a quiet character study and it is beautiful because it touches on how people grieve in different ways. It also subtly shows that “not getting over it” is perfectly okay. The conversations in this film are human, the interactions are human, the characters are human, and the journey Fern is on is one of self-rediscovery and that is humanity in its most honest form.