Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 11, 2021)
Based on a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, 2020’s Nomadland offers a look at Americans who reacted to economic displacement via a more transient lifestyle. Set in 2011, we meet Fern (Frances McDorman), a recently-widowed middle-aged woman who loses her job at a Nevada gypsum plant.
With no job and no family to keep her there, Fern piles into a van and hits the road. She embraces a nomadic lifestyle that leads her around the US Southwest.
As Fern travels, she struggles with finances and keeps herself at arm’s length from those she meets. Though Fern enjoys some “seasonal” friends who also sustain the same transient life, she resists deeper engagements.
This choice that becomes more complicated when fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) shows romantic interest in Fern. With a grandchild on the way, he leans toward a more stable existence and prods Fern to follow him, a choice that she seems reluctant to accept.
That synopsis leaves the impression that Nomadland provides a plot, but it doesn’t. While it follows Fern’s narrative arc, the film seems much more experiential and less focused on a traditional story progression.
On the surface, this makes me want to compare Nomadland to the Terrence Malick oeuvre, and given the ample views of dramatic natural scenery, some of those connections make sense. However, I find myself reminded more of 2006’s Into the Wild more than anything Malick ever did.
Both films focus on characters who disconnect from civilization and traditional choices. They also follow our leads as they meet and interact with a mix of secondary roles.
However, Wild’s Chris McCandless was much younger than Fern, and he also went on a trek with a purpose, as he intended to end up in one specific spot. On the other hand, Fern wanders with no discernible purpose other than to avoid attachment and entanglements.
Wild felt more episodic than the loosely-structured Nomadland. As Chris traveled, we found semi-isolated vignettes about the folks he encountered, whereas Fern’s friends receive less delineation.
As does Fern herself. Indeed, most of the character exposition we find doesn’t occur until the movie’s second half, so we don’t get much detail about our lead until we’ve spent a good 70 minutes with her.
This becomes both a strength and a weakness of Nomadland. As much as I hate to admit it, I do tend to prefer movies that give us more structure than what we find here, so the looseness of Nomadland can frustrate.
As noted, we do eventually receive a bit more grounding, mainly via the character exposition we find during the movie’s second half. Until then, we enjoy a fairly vague notion of who Fern is and what makes her tick.
To some degree, that remains the case even after the character reveals emerge, and I appreciate that – kind of. I won’t say much in the interest of spoiler-avoidance, but even when we get this background, the movie remains loose in terms of plot and resolution.
The latter element makes sense, and I applaud the filmmakers’ refusal to tie up Fern’s arc in a tidy bow. Again, I don’t want to reveal too much about the tale, but suffice it to say that Nomadland doesn’t come with a traditional “ending”.
Which the snooty movie critic in me does appreciate, but the “damn, I like a nice plot” side of me feels somewhat dissatisfied with the vagueness. Granted, given the experiential feel of the rest of the movie, a traditional finale would’ve felt intensely dishonest.
Still, the looseness remains moderately frustrating, as it can lead me to wonder what the point of the project intends to be. Much of Nomadland feels more like an attempt to tell the saga of the rootless than a concrete story of Fern.
Again, this becomes more accurate for the film’s first half, as Fern’s background turns clearer in the second part. Until then, she remains elusive, and we find many scenes that focus on the folks she meets along the way.
Given that Nomadland comes based off a non-fiction book about people who follow this lifestyle, this makes some sense, but it doesn’t always feel like a natural fit. The movie occasionally grinds to a halt so it can allow secondary characters to relate their experiences.
In addition, Nomadland casts some actual “nomads” in these roles, a choice that further blurs lines between fact and fiction. Though I’m not wild about the amount of cinematic real estate the film devotes to the characters, the “actors” blend surprisingly well.
Up against tremendous talents like McDormand and Strathairn, the amateurs easily could’ve come off as stiff and problematic. However – perhaps because they essentially play themselves – they managed to add some flavor and verisimilitude to the production.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but wish the movie stayed more firmly with Fern, as the digressions to the other “nomads” can feel contrived. I get the feeling writer/director Chloé Zhao really wanted to make a documentary about these transient people but compromised with this mix, and the shots of the real people allow her to embrace the former desire.
As always, McDormand offers a strong performance, one that feels natural and not overdone. Given Fern’s saga, it would be easy to milk the role for pathos or other simple emotions, but McDormand keeps the character believable and at appropriate levels of expressiveness.
It helps that Nomadland pairs McDormand with the similarly subdued Strathairn, as they create a good cinematic couple. Dave feels like an extension of Fern who simply chose to go left instead of right, and Strathairn ensures we buy him as a three-dimensional person as well.
Ultimately, I find it hard to pin down my feelings about Nomadland due to the battle between the Snooty Movie Critic and the Lout Who Likes Conventional Movies. As the former, I find a lot to respect and like, but as the latter, I feel more torn.
Still, the Lout remained entertained enough with Nomadland to recommend it. The movie can feel aimless and frustrating, but it presents such an honest portrait of a certain lifestyle choice that it wins in the end.