Nomadland (2020) – Review

Nomadland is now streaming on Hulu.

Fern travels through an America that has been dead a long time, even if it’s taking its populace longer and longer to realize it. She drifts through the decimated remains of a million attempts at community, all funded through the capitalist lens. There is nothing, and she is nothing. She chased the Dream like many a foolish Boomer before her, and at the end of her life, she is trying to redefine it.

Fern comes from money, but abandoned it at a young age to marry a construction worker. They move to a company town called Empire in Nevada and stay right there, doing nothing else but working their tails off, until her husband dies and the township quite literally disappears off the map. Fern becomes a person displaced from time and space itself, minus a zip code or an official address. All she can think to do is head off into the wilderness, not one of nature (though she sees plenty of that) but the fossils of America itself.

This movie should not work. It is nothing more than Frances McDormand vibing with a bunch of voluntary nomads. She is one of only two professional actors in the entire film. This spells out disaster if anyone other than Chloe Zhao went for it. 

I’ve never seen a Zhao before, but now I definitely have to catch up. Before she’s swallowed whole into the Marvel studio system, she made possibly the most explicitly anti-capitalist film made by a studio that I have seen in a long time. It’s not just subtle anymore, it’s the very text of the film. Fern struggles through an Amazon warehouse and a backbreaking food service job that brought to mind when I worked for a nursing home’s kitchen for six months while in college. She attends a communalist gathering of vagabonds whose leader, Bob Wells playing himself, spits truth about the “mad embrace of the dollar.” That this is being distributed by a Disney subsidiary feels like Zhao pulled off some kind of heist. More than likely, Disney didn’t mind that screed in exchange for a Marvel movie or five. Taika Waititi went to similar lengths to get Jojo Rabbit made, after all.

Fern is different from most of the others because she voluntarily ran away from wealth and has the option to return to it. The film does briefly interrogate this notion, of a person shattered by a trauma that doesn’t manifest itself in the usual way. It posits the loss of a community can be as earth-shattering as an act of violence. We do not see Empire, Nevada itself until a crucial moment, and it feels like setup for a horror movie that ends up having no jump scares. There is a perverse sort of beauty in the sheer ruin Zhao documents for us, like something out of a Fallout game minus the McCarthy Era aesthetic. 

It is contrasted with the places that haven’t been spoiled by humanity yet, where Fern sees the last of our dead nation. The earth never belonged to us, and it will return to its rightful masters one way or the other. Fern never tries to control it or dominate it, she simply exists within it. It’s a truly tremendous thing, that gives proper respect to the tragedies of her life but also gives her the grace of the few joyous moments she gets to have. She lives this life for a reason, after all.

I give Nomadland an A-.

Nomadland,” Reviewed: Chloé Zhao's Nostalgic Portrait of Itinerant America  | The New Yorker