Isolated characters in films can often lead to some powerful stories. From Janet Leigh in Psycho to Tom Hanks in Cast Away to Reese Witherspoon in Wild, the reason a certain character ends up by herself or himself can vary, but they almost always feature that character doing some deep soul-searching, trying to account for what got her or him to that particular point in life.
Many viewers may find themselves doing some searching of their own after watching the exquisite Nomadland. Taking inspiration from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name, writer/director Chloé Zhao delivers the somber yet poignant story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman reeling from the double whammy of the death of her husband and the closure of a sheetrock plant in Empire, Nevada, which essentially decimated the town.
With nowhere to call home, she has settled into an itinerant lifestyle, outfitting a van to be her shelter while she wanders from place to place, taking short term jobs at Amazon, RV parks, and roadside restaurants. While it would be difficult to call her “happy,” she does appear to be at least satisfied with her current lot in life, which gives her plenty of freedom to go where she wants to go and and do what she wants to do.
Zhao uses many real-life people, including some featured in the book, to complement Fern’s journey, offering advice, aid, and comfort at various stops. One stop in Arizona provides a sort of community for Fern, but she appears to prefer a sort of self-imposed isolation, only popping her head out when she truly needs help.
The story is free-flowing, with little structure as it follows Fern along her ever-winding path. It’s at once a commentary on the crumbling safety net that American jobs once promised, and also an indictment of the entire system where people are beholden to companies that often find them highly disposable.
Although Fern and the likeminded people with whom she interacts lead lives different than most in the United States, it’s not difficult to empathize with them. Zhao lets many of them tell their own stories, and each one is both unique and relatable. The details of their lives could be considered tragic by one measure, but it’s clear by how they approach each day that none of them would view their lives that way.
McDormand utterly inhabits her role, with an ultra-short haircut and makeup-free face helping her establish Fern as a no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person. At the same time, Fern’s motivations can sometimes be a mystery, and it’s McDormand’s performance that keeps the character compelling even when you don’t know what she’s going to do next.
Like much of the land that Fern travels to and through, Nomadland is both desolate and beautiful. As the best movies do, it gives a glimpse into a world with which many people may be unfamiliar, and draws us in with a fascinating and emotional story.
Nomadland is currently showing in IMAX theaters. It will open in select theaters and debut on Hulu on February 19.