Sitting in my home for months has left me with a longing for adventure and the open road, perhaps even an idealized trip to the Grand Canyon or the Great Plains or a place where some mythical notion of freedom extends through the horizon. Directed by Chloé Zhao, known for Marvel’s upcoming Eternals and the compassionate drama The Rider, the film Nomadland exists within this imaginary notion—but with a caveat, of course. Fern (an emphatic and restless Frances McDormand) is a drifting, penniless nomad who cannot snag a stable job during the Great Recession, forcing her to commit to a life in a van that rumbles across middle America, through the western deserts and back again. While the details of Fern’s conditions are quite indigent—her home has no running water and cannot withstand the severe cold of a midwest winter—the very act of wandering becomes a radical activity where she is not subject to the implications of a mainstream lifestyle.
The film, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, is at once an indictment of the precarious and frankly inhumane economic conditions in the United States, while still managing to be an ode to the sprawling American west. Make no mistake, this movie does not intend to glamorize or create noble figures out of people who endure houselessness–instead, it seeks to peer into a neo-liberal economy that thrives from temporary workers, creating the conditions for van living, amongst other marginalized lifestyles. Shot with a troupe of non-actors playing versions of themselves and awe-inspiring cinematography, Nomadland quietly observes the harsh reality that undermines any idea of the American dream. Zhao's buzzy new film recently took home the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama, and may be on its way to Oscar glory.
Who stars in Nomadland?
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a nearly-elderly transient temporary worker who lives out of her van after she loses her job at the real-life US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. McDormand is best known for her roles in Moonrise Kingdom, Burn After Reading, Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
What are critics saying?
Nomadland appeared on a number of year-end lists and has won numerous awards from film critic’s associations. With Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Director, Best Actress in a Motion Picture–Drama for Francis McDormand, and Best Screenplay, on top of number nods from the Independent Spirit Awards, this movie has received nearly universal acclaim. The Houston Chronicle best summed up the discourse surrounding the film, noting, “The contemplative "Nomadland" whispers instead of shouts its grievances about contemporary American life, and is all the more powerful for it.”
Speaking to Variety at a press conference for the film, McDormand said, “We were able to move swiftly and live in the community of the vandwellers in a way that wasn’t disruptive. We played the game of ‘what if?’ What if I was really one of them?”
She continued, “They have created, dare I say, a socialist situation: One for all and all for one. There are so many people on the road now, because of the economic situation, but also because they are answering to their wanderlust and their feeling of confinement. There is something about human spirit that’s about movement.”
How can I watch Nomadland?
The film will be simultaneously released on Hulu and in theaters on Friday, February 19.