Nomandland (2020)

After not having seen a movie in a theater in three months, I could not have picked a better one to see upon my return.  After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020, Nomadland has been a front-runner for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  After seeing the movie for myself, I can see why.  The movie is expertly made in all aspects: acting, direction, cinematography, screenplay, editing and film score.  While movies that sweep a majority of the major award categories are rare (Parasite notwithstanding), I would be shocked if Nomadland does not win in at least two of them.  One of which should be for Actress in a Leading Role.

Any discussion of Nomadland would have to begin with Frances McDormand’s performance. She’s in every scene, and provides the movie with its soul.  I would call it naturalistic, but I don’t know if that description would mean the same thing to others.  Unlike her fiery, award-winning performance as Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), her performance as Fern is much more subdued, but no less emotionally raw.  While Fern certainly could have been played by another actress, I don’t know who would bring the same ingredients to the table.  Fern is sad, introspective, friendly, direct, funny, soulful, plain spoken, stubborn and so many other characteristics that I’m not sure who else could have played the role as effectively.  McDormand so effortlessly inhabits her character I felt the role was written with her in mind.  (McDormand optioned the film rights in 2017 and asked director Chloé Zhao to adapt it.) Without McDormand at its center, Nomadland would still be a good movie, but probably not a great one.

In Nomadland, Fern has lost everything: her husband, her job and her home.  She and her husband worked at US Gypsum, based in Empire, Nevada.  When the company closed up a few years after the great recession, the entire town left.  The opening credits mention that the town’s zip code was discontinued.  Fern stubbornly stays behind, living out of her van with her personal possessions in storage.  She makes good money at the nearby Amazon facility, but the work is seasonal.  She can’t survive on social security if she retires early.  With the winter weather getting extremely cold, she takes her friend Linda’s advice heads out west to an RV camp in Arizona for others who have been dispossessed by the Great Recession.

While at the camp, Fern makes friends with a lady nicknamed Swankie, a cancer survivor whose cancer has returned.  Fern helps Sawnkie get her van road-ready, so that Swankie can visit Alaska one last time before she dies.  Fern also meets David (David Strathairn), a potential love interest that she meets again while working at an RV park in South Dakota.  When he agrees to live with his son, she initially declines.  Fern later takes a job at a beet farm but her van suffers engine trouble.  Unable to pay for the cost of the repairs, she visits her sister and asks for the money.  Her sister says that Fern can stay with them as long as she likes, but Fern heads out after receiving her repair money.  Fern then visits David at his son’s home, and David asks her to stay.  His son has a guest house and she can stay as long as she likes.  She leaves after just a few days and heads back to Nevada.  After working for Amazon for another holiday season, she goes back to the RV park in Arizona and learns that Swankie has died.

While Nomandland has the structure of a road movie, its a character study at its core. The richness of the story is created through observations of Fern on her own and her relationships with others.  She makes acquaintances easily, but few close friends.  She keeps her innermost feelings to herself for the most part, but does confide in those she trusts.  Her conversations with Bob Wells (the leader of the RV camp in Arizona) and her sister are honest and devastating.  Fern’s relationship with David certainly could have grown past friendship, but after getting to know Fern throughout the course of the movie, I knew that it would not work out in the end.  Nomadland may be unromantic, but the feelings it generates are earned honestly.  I never once felt like I was being manipulated in a melodramatic way.

Nomadland also builds its power through panoramic views of the American west.  The movie includes many scenes of Fern interacting with nature that are visually breathtaking.  From the Nevada and Arizona deserts, the Badlands of South Dakota, the California seaside and the San Bernardino National Forest, the camera dwells on nature, letting us take in what Fern experiences while she experiences it.  While Fern may be the central character of the movie, her silent, ever-present companion is nature.  I highly recommend seeing it in a movie in a theater if you can.  The scenery alone is worth the price of admission.

While watching Nomadland, I found myself trying to decide whether Fern is sad or depressed.  I chose sad, because she takes care of herself and enjoys life.  If she were depressed, I doubt she would have been able to survive living out of her van for long.  Fern lost everything, and is sad over the way life has treated her.  She loved her husband and their home, which had an unobstructed view of the surrounding desert.  As she states later in the movie, she decided to stay around the city of Empire because if she leaves, it would be as if her husband and the life they had together never existed.  Fern may be untethered, but she is not unmoored.  Home for her will always be a city that no longer exists.

Even though the story takes place in 2011 and was filmed before anyone had heard of (or died from) COVID, I found that Nomadland has an uncanny resonance to 2020, the year of the pandemic.  At the end of the movie, Fern takes a walk around the abandoned corporate office of US Gypsum and her home.  All of the doors are unlocked, and she is free to visit her husband’s former office.  When she drags a finger through the dust on a desk in a meeting room, I couldn’t help but think of what’s happened to our economy in the last year.  People we’ve known our entire lives have suddenly left us, entire industries have vanished (or are close to it), millions of people are out of work with nowhere to turn.  The societal relevance of Nomadland, coincidental though it may be, could (and should) help it win Best Picture.  It’s message of resilience in the face of despair was not lost on me.  The movie does include any overt political messaging.  Fern never blames anyone for her fate, even though blame could easily be placed at the feet of those responsible for the Great Recession.  The leader of the RV park in Arizona talks about not being a slave to the dollar, but nobody regrets their plight.  Ironically, Fern and her fellow nomads seem to be grateful for their situation.

The RV nomads Fern meets enjoy their new, much simpler existence.  With no home, no steady job and no family, they are free to go wherever they want, whenever they want.  They sit outside every day, sleep under the stars, and are able to take in sights they never would have been able to see before.  This isn’t to say that life as a nomad isn’t difficult.  With little money, Fern has to subsist on Campbell’s soup and other low-cost sources of nutrition.  Since her van is not an RV, she has to relieve herself in her van, sitting on a bucket.  I can also state that showing at a public park is no replacement for the amenities of home, either.  Aside from the biological aspect of things, everyone appears to be content, free from debt and the other trappings of society.

Towards the end of the movie, I was nervous that the plot would somehow put Fern in peril, in an effort to add excitement to what is a very ruminative, contemplative moviegoing experience. I was afraid that someone would rob Fern, steal her van, or inflict violence on her in some way, in typically Hollywood fashion.  I’m glad to say that my fears were completely unfounded.  The film ends on a mournful note, with Fern and others remembering Swankie at a campfire. It’s a fitting tribute that sums up the movie’s depiction of personal freedom, sadness and the open road.

As I mentioned at the outset, I described McDormand’s performance as naturalistic.  It’s truly a naked performance, both literally and figuratively.  She wears no makeup and sports a self-inflicted haircut that can at best be described as choppy.  The camera captures all of her  wrinkles at sixty-three, and I’m guessing McDormand could care less.  The clothes Fern wears are baggy and unflattering, but presumably comfortable.  At one point, she bathes naked in a river in the forest, and I definitely felt like I was trespassing on a private moment.  While Nomandland has none of the fireworks in Three Billboards, McDormand infuses the movie with her spirit and all aspects of her personality.  The movie captures McDormand’s puckish spirit, her prickly nature, and her soulful introspection.  It’s a bravura performance any way you slice it.  She’s a long way from Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996).  While the Academy voters may decide against rewarding someone who just won three years ago, I hope they decide to vote for the best performance of the year.

David Strathairn does nice work here as David, a fellow RV nomad who is certain he likes to be around Fern and asks her to stay with him, but seems to know she won’t before he asks.  His performance is like an old ballcap: comfortable, worn but still useful.  He’s understandably tentative to start a romance in his sixties, but he gives it his best shot.  His quiet turn in Nomandland likely won’t win him any awards, but should be remembered.

As director, writer and producer of Nomadland, Chloé Zhao has turned in a singular achievement. I’m not sure how much of what she’s done here will translate in Marvel’s The Eternals, but I will definitely seek out her previous film The Rider. If the Academy is ever going to honor a woman as Best Director, Zhao’s work here should do it.

Lastly, if you can’t see the movie in a theater, definitely check it out on Hulu.

In case you want to trace Fern’s road trip, Frommer’s is here to help.

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