“That ring is a circle and it never ends. And that means your love never ends. And you may not be able to take it off, even if you tried.”
Nomadland is the latest from director Chloe Zhao and chronicles the life of a woman forced from her home and into a life of wandering. After the death of her husband, Fern (Francis McDormand) chose to stick around in Empire, Nevada. She didn’t want to let go of his memory and being around the place that was so much a part of him kept the man from fading. When the mine is shut down, the zip code is discontinued and she takes her customized van on the road to join others in travelling the United States, looking for a form of peace.
It’s odd that this film came out in 2020 when we were all suffering through Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, another film about the forgotten in America desperate to find meaning and escape. While Howard’s film paints these people as proudly unintelligent, pornographicly poor, Zhao is capable of providing something more in focusing on how the system failed these people. Fern has lost her home due to economic failure, and her early retirement benefits won’t cover being able to merely survive. She instead chooses to boil everything down to absolute minimal necessity and it paints quite a different picture. Rather than an unpleasant film that paints rustic, rural life in what has been described as “poverty porn,” Zhao chooses to allow us to empathize with these people.
While surrounded by turmoil and anger in my day-to-day life, it becomes more and more important to remember just how beautiful this country is. The major parts of this film revolve around Fern’s time in Arizona, looking at the landscapes and meeting the people that will uplift her in her journey. These are all, each and every one, real nomads living this life. McDormand is the true all-star performance, but these people are merely portraying their life. It throws the drama into a mixture of narrative film and fly-on-the-wall documentary, something we’ve seen people like Clint Eastwood try and fail to do. It’s a loving way to get to know these people and quite humbling to hear them speak from the heart about their lives, losses, and treks across the nation.
It’s not all pleasantries and excellence. Fern is confronted with life outside of her loss, which throws the film into a bit of a turmoil. She meets the character of David (David Strathairn), a man who will develop a crush on her, and he is a constant reminder of the chance to move on with her life and settle again. The temptation offers a lot of pathos to both characters, but it’s lacking in real development and the two notably have no chemistry. This is, in part, due to Fern having no true desire to move on from the death of her husband. It is, sadly, also on the part of Strathairn not quite understanding his character. He’s got some family that he hasn’t seen in a while and longs to connect with, but this is only touched on in small doses and it makes this chunk of the film feel out of pace with the rest. We, as an audience, are asked to accept a potential romance between a three dimensional lead that isn’t interested and a one dimensional supporting character that isn’t confident enough to portray his own interest.
Nomadland is slow, contemplative, and treats the landscape of American nomads with a loving respect despite it’s failure to paint any character but Fern in a meaningful way (except Swankie, who rules and steals the show). A film that should, in my humble opinion, be taken with tea and time to think it over for quite some time afterward.
Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu.