Nomadland is a remarkable achievement, somehow rewriting and elevating the mythology of the American West. Director Chloé Zhao completes her unofficial trilogy, each film dealing with a different element of this mythology. First, she examined modern life on a Native American Reservation in Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Second, she considered the role of the modern cowboy in The Rider. It only seems natural that her third feature would follow the lives of modern “nomads” as they work and travel across the West.
Our entry point into this modern, nomadic lifestyle is Fern, played with such genuine empathy by Frances McDormand that one can barely tell she isn’t one of the non-actors to populate most of the “roles” in this film. Did I mention, Chloé Zhao seems to have a penchant for casting most of the roles in her films with non-actors? This could be a detriment to many films, making the performance of a fine actor such as McDormand stand out against the amateurs. But, in the sure and quiet gaze presented by Zhao, the truth of each person is allowed to shine, leaving McDorman’s Fern as just another story in the desert. Fern’s tale is no more fascinating nor affecting than Linda’s or Swankie’s. We just follow Fern more.
And in this way, we are invited to sit beside these characters at a fire or a van-side rummage sale or a temporary campground job, invited to listen. They all have stories to tell, slowly unveiling the events that led them to this new nomadic lifestyle. Some fall away from traditional life due to terminal illness, some due to unfulfilled lives in suburbia, some due to the examples of empty lives ended before even the simplest dreams could be realized. In this way, Zhao allows us to see these people as individuals, searchers, not just the simplistic and stigmatic label of “homeless.” Fern, as well as all of the transient residents of Nomadland are seeking, searching, always travelling.
Take a listen to Bruce Purkey and Eric Holmes discuss Nomadland on the latest episode of Find Your Film:
There is something that is both sad and tragic as well as comforting and uplifting about these stories. For myself, I found Nomadland spiritual, inspiring, but also comforting, like leaning my head against a car window, watching the scenery glide by, while on a road trip with my family.
As I said before, Nomadland, which comes out February 19 (it received a limited December release for awards consideration), is a remarkable achievement.
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