Review: Nomadland (2020)

Director/Screenwriter: Chloe Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some full nudity
Release Date: 2/19/21 (Theatres/Streaming)
Runtime: 1h 48m
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Where to Watch: Hulu
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing; Possible–Supporting Actor (Strathairn), Sound

Nomadland is currently the frontrunner for the Best Picture and Director Oscars (among others), and it’s easy to see why: it’s an extremely well-made contemplative film that probably isn’t for everyone due to its slow, introspective nature, but is popular among cinephiles like myself. The film is based on the book of the same name, written by Jessica Bruder (which I haven’t read, but now I want to). Director Chloe Zhao also wrote the script — and did all the editing herself — which manages to break just about every rule of screenwriting in a successful manner. There is no noticeable conflict or antagonist, and the film’s narrative structure isn’t set in stone. But, that’s where Zhao is able to add her unique touch and sensibilities, in what I’d called the best direction of the year.

Nomadland is centered on a recently-widowed, out of work woman named Fran, whose town of Empire, Nevada basically becomes obsolete after the recently. The film primarily takes place in 2011, and Zhao wisely and effectively includes technology and other elements of the time, including a marquee for Marvel’s The Avengers. Other than that, though, the story is universal and fascinating enough to apply to other time periods, such as The Great Depression. Fran decides to live as a nomad, out of her van (which she names “Vanguard”), and takes a series of temporary jobs, ranging from Amazon warehouse packager to RV camp worker. Others are confused by her lifestyle choice, and may even offer to help her; but she’s perfectly fine as is, although she’s still struggling to find herself after the loss of her husband, house, and steady job (hence, an inner conflict). 

Frances McDormand gives a stunningly realistic performance in the leading role of Fern, who is often more of a guide than a clearly-outlined protagonist. She apparently fitted in with the nomads and nomadic lifestyle so well that she was offered a real part-time job (although, how do people not know who she is?). We see her do all kinds of things, from going to the bathroom in a bucket to floating completely naked in a lake. The only other real actor in the movie is David Strathairn, as a fellow nomader who takes an immediate liking to Fern (although she seemingly doesn’t reciprocate). He’s very solid, but not exceptional (McDormand’s the star here). 

The rest of the cast mainly consist of non-actors and real-life nomads, whose first names are their real first names. This adds to the authenticity of the movie, and sometimes I found their stories more fascinating than Fern’s. That’s not a knock against McDormand’s performance or the writing, just a testament to the power of utilizing real people. Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells are all given interesting things to do, and all of their scenes with McDormand are enlightening in various ways.  Some scenes in the film are quick, while others are longer, which I’m sure was all purposeful on Zhao’s part. I was really impressed with her editing, which I’m sure wasn’t an easy task. (Inevitably, many directors are happy to step back after production and let the editors do the rest of the work). The cinematography is also terrific, too, and I’d be surprised if this doesn’t win in that category as well. 

I can see how some viewers are a bit disappointed with the ending, which isn’t concrete — but neither is it a cliffhanging. In my opinion, it seems to be the epitome of the life of a nomad (no spoilers here!). I suppose there could have been a wow-inducing ending, but that’s not the kind of movie this is; that would’ve felt out of place. By traveling along with Fern on her journey, we see the beauty and complexity of America through her eyes, and learn about a part of American culture unfamiliar to many of us: the nomadic lifestyle.