The American drama film directed and written by Chloé Zhao “Nomadland”, based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”, depicts the story of Fern (Frances McDormand) who has no regular jobs and a traditional house. She lives in a van called Vanguard by her. Fern represents one of the thousands of Americans who lost their jobs and homes after the recession that started in 2008, culminating in the closure of the factory that supported the population of Empire, in Nevada, where Fern and her husband used to live and work, in the United States countryside. Since then, Fern has lived as a nomad on the roads of life, doing seasonal jobs to survive and crossing her life with new and old acquaintances on roads that are sometimes freezing, sometimes dry and hot.
The idea of the film is inspired by real events and the film production itself uses real places and characters to tell this story that mixes documentary with fiction. Chloé Zhao has transformed Bruder’s work of investigative journalism into a big-hearted drama, inventing a fictional character, Fern (McDormand), to intersect with the lives of the people interviewed in the book, and to act as the film’s emotional lodestone. They are members of a real riders community, such as Linda May, who plays herself as Fern’s friend who is smiling and capable figure with silver hair ou, Swankie, who has seven or eight months to live.
The only exception — and one of a handful of elements that ruptures any possible documentary vibe — is the kindly drifter David (David Straithan, Good Night and Good Luck), whose conspicuous entrance announces a Potential Love Interest, and who reappears as Fern travels from job to job, flipping burgers and cleaning toilets, taking the scenic route through Nebraska, Arizona, South Dakota and Northern California.
Fern is a character defined by loss. Following her husband’s terminal battle with cancer, and the closure of the mine in Empire where they both worked, she has placed all her hopes (and capital) into her customised RV, which has left her “not homeless”, as she tells a concerned former student, “just house-less. Not the same thing, right?”
“Nomadland” goes deep in discussing one version of the American Dream, the ethos of the United States, which is rarely explored by Hollywood: social inequality as a result of exacerbated capitalism. The country sells so much the image of a wealthy, prosperous and egalitarian nation that it even gives a shock of reality when seeing the arid and extreme poverty scenes, even for me that I am aware that in the Land of Uncle Sam has a lot of thorns.
The film does not get to adopt a political tone but fulfils its mission as a documentary project that mixes harmoniously with the fictional side. The narrative sounds a little linear, making use of the metaphorical figure of speech “the story is like a musical note only”. The film already introduces the conflict at the opening and during the dramatic arc of Fern, there is no significant turning point, plot twist, climax or even great allegories. Zhao intentionally wants to show life as it is, without magic solutions, problems-solving and happy endings.
Frances McDormand captures the essence of Fern, which is as complex as life is, with restrained gestures and actions, without outbursts of joy, anger or suffering. She plays a character that demands an inward, subtle performance, without external exposure, but McDormand can express magnificently the “character’s universe”. It is for that reason, McDormand is the favourite for the Golden Globe Awards for “Best Motion Picture Actress – Drama”.
For almost 2 hours of the film, we don’t know the real reasons that led the character to abandon her traditional social life and drives on the roads. Is she fleeing away from the oppressive system? Has she finally found her path in this world? Is she stuck in the trauma of the past? Has she embraced the only possible future for her? These questions, Zhao and McDormand have never really answered, and that makes it uncomfortable watching the film, but that’s not an issue. It makes “Nomadland” even more interesting.
All these mysteries and dilemmas are wrapped-up in a direction of photography created by Joshua James Richards that explores long shots of places that are sometimes cold and grey, sometimes dry and hostile. This approach makes “Nomadland” a kind of visual poetry, an intimate and austere way to explore the protagonist on her journey and the emotional events along the way.