Movie Review – Nomadland
Frances McDormand forces us to see the warmth of kindred souls seeking freedom in a landscape abandoned by the American Dream.
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Linda May
Directed by: Chloe Zhao
Running time: 1 hr 47 mins
Opening in Toronto March 19
By Katherine Monk
The cold ache begins the minute Chloe Zhao rolls camera and pans a frozen desert. The opening titles explained this was Empire — a small town in Nevada where a sheetrock factory once fed and nourished the entire population. But now, there is only emptiness, and a solo figure walking through a faded field.
This is Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who once called Empire home, but has been transformed into human tumbleweed — detached, without roots, and as we soon realize, without a pulsing sense of purpose.
The first scene shows Fern urinating in an open field, then packing up a storage locker with the items she clearly cares about the most: A set of plates she inherited from her father, and the worn jean jacket of her dead husband.
It’s definitely a bleak introduction to a character, but when you start in the middle of nowhere with nothing but the clothes on your back and an old lineman’s van to call home, the bar of expectation is low — leaving us plenty of hope for a better tomorrow. Because, after all, that’s what we do as humans: We hope. Even when everything feels hopeless.
This strange compulsion to imagine things for the better sits at the heart of Zhao’s film, and at a certain point, we begin to question the compulsion itself. It’s not entirely conscious, but over the course of watching Fern hit the road in her aging white van, moving from a warehouse job at Amazon to cleaning toilets at a camp ground, the weight of existence starts to flatten our worn tires of optimism.
Fern isn’t complaining, of course. She’s a feisty survivor who always finds a way to survive and get by, but eventually, after freezing in parking lots and suffering some budget-crushing engine trouble, we watch a streak of doubt move cross her face.
Like everything in Zhao’s film, it’s subtle. McDormand’s performance doesn’t bulge out into every corner of the screen, announcing itself with broad gestures and striking emotional moments. It’s completely contained. In the same way Fern’s whole life is packed into the cargo area of her customized van, the wholeness of her person has been compacted, stripped down, and limited to a set of emotions she can handle alone.
The big challenge comes when a big repair bill forces her back into the world of home owners and job holders. Fern needs to borrow money from her sister, so boards a Greyhound and heads into the heart of the generic suburbs where her sister and husband have a comfortable home and talk about real estate with their neighbours.
Fern’s whole life is packed into the cargo area of her customized van, the wholeness of her person has been compacted, stripped down, and limited to a set of emotions she can handle alone.
It’s probably the most dramatic scene in the film — because we’re watching two entirely different approaches to life collide head on. We can tell Fern has the impulse to steer her car into the oncoming lane, and demolish her sister’s sense of safety. By the same token, we can see her sister’s frustration. She offers her a room, a roof and stability, but just watching Fern in the anonymous guest bedroom, with pillow shams and bed ruffles, needlepoints and an empty desk, we feel her discomfort. She doesn’t belong there. It’s too static, too beige, too sterile. The effect is the same whenever Fern is stationary. Zhao’s frames become flatter, the landscape emptier, and Fern that much more imprisoned by the walls of expectation.
Only when she’s interacting with other people in makeshift campgrounds and known nomad haunts does she feel alive, vibrant and, most importantly, hopeful. McDormand’s performance finds these emotions in the hay stack of despair that sits on the plains of American pessimism — the dustbowl of the American Dream — from which millions of families have been displaced by faceless, and largely inhumane, economic forces.
For many of us, this reality is an abstract, something we fear in the middle of the night when worst-case scenarios pop up like mushrooms after a heavy rain — spotted, poisonous thoughts that seem so potent until the time passes and they inevitably dissolve into a slimy mush of groundless fears.
Fern lives with these fungal life forms every second, and she’s not only learned to harvest them, she’s found a way to turn the fear into a sense of purpose. After all, fear and hope are partners, and the deeper Fern digs into the open terrain, facing down the elements and the judgments of the static world, the more she learns about the true nature of freedom.
McDormand’s performance finds these emotions in the hay stack of despair that sits on the plains of American pessimism — the dustbowl of the American Dream — from which millions of families have been displaced by faceless, and largely inhumane, economic forces.
Zhao highlights these moments of recognition with scenes featuring ‘real people’ — the real life nomads who populate Wal-Mart parking lots and rest stops. Their testimony brings an almost documentary feel to Zhao’s film, based on Jessica Bruder’s book. Their stories are moving and honestly told, but they stand out because the performers bring an element of self-awareness that’s entirely absent from McDormand’s portrayal of Fern. And yet, McDormand manages to bring both worlds together because she’s so tapped into the common quest: ‘freedom.’
For her, the word ‘freedom’ first translated into movement — and the concrete act of driving a vehicle in any direction she cared to go. But as we watch her journey, the true essence of freedom becomes much broader because we’re watching her let go of so much. From the plates, to partnerships, to physical space, Fern surrenders to the emptiness of it all — something we watch McDormand communicate with little more than mussed-up hair, a lack of makeup and the arch of an eyebrow over her wide blue eyes.
It’s all so minimal, but Zhao makes it work because everything in this movie is trimmed down to scale, from the cinematography, to the edits, to the gorgeous piano score from Ludovico Einaudi, which finds an intuitive mix of minor chords and solo tones that not only complements the imagery, but marries all the mystical ingredients of Zhao’s film into something small — but undeniably magical, and undoubtedly of the moment.
THE EX-PRESS, March 18, 2021