You may have met Frances McDormand as Laura Bishop in “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) or Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” (1996), but you will not truly know McDormand until you have met her as Fern in “Nomadland” (2020). In Chloé Zhao’s new adapted film, McDormand stars as a nomad who is forced out of a sedentary life when her home of Empire, Nevada is taken off the map. As she journeys across the western United States with nothing but a van packed with a bed, a stove and her most valuable china, Fern meets an array of eccentric characters, each of them taking her along on some kind of emotional or physical journey.
The beauty of “Nomadland” does not just lie in the story it tells; it actually comes to life through its unique casting. Although the film is not based on a true story, it is strongly rooted in real events and experiences of those considered to be nomads. Many of the driving characters, such as Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells are actually played by the nomads themselves. The cast is certainly not stacked with Hollywood regulars, but it does an authentic and commendable job of bringing a tranquil yet emotional story to the screen.
“Nomadland” has a productive sort of silence to it, one that makes little noise but offers so much commentary. Many of the nomads are either chasing or embracing a life of peace, making the film’s quiet outlook fitting and meaningful. Scenes of Fern driving down winding highway roads, with nothing but open land around her, are common as she moves from one place to the next.
The film also avoids bombarding the viewers with dialogue. Conversations are only packed with necessary words that drive the characters’ developments and relationships. Just as the characters in “Nomadland” leave behind anything unnecessary, so do their discussions.
The minimalist attitude of the film does not end there, but actually continues to a point that avoids directly showing many important scenes. Much of what happens in “Nomadland” must be inferred instead of being directly stated. When Fern chooses not to pursue a relationship with a nomad named David (David Strathairn), there is never a scene that shows her goodbye. Instead, she is shown wandering around the quiet house, and then she is simply back on the road. Even when Swankie, a thoughtful and fulfilled character, dies, there is never a scene breaking this news to Fern and the other characters. Instead, they peacefully sit around a fire, throwing rocks into the flames as one whispers an occasional comment about their dear friend. Wonderfully, the silence is never uncomfortable or awkward; it sits just right.
The wonder of “Nomadland” does not only rely on the strong performances of its cast and a carefully crafted screenplay — the directing and cinematography also provide worthwhile messages to the film. Each scene frames the characters in a way that allows viewers to get the most out of their expressions and body language, whether those are dimly lit close-ups as characters share their histories or full shots as Fern wanders along oceanside cliffs with the giddiness of a child.
Long shots are also a common device in “Nomadland,” whether they are of open land as Fern urinates along a fence or of the contrasting corporate world inside an Amazon factory. Despite the content or shot type of each scene, the entire film holds either a dim or blue tone, signifying that no matter what is happening, Fern is on an emotional journey.
“Nomadland” is not just the fictional story of Fern; it is a deeper look into how real people who have chosen to forgo a typical life in pursuit of something more adventurous live their lives. None of the characters, however, are carefree. They all hold important burdens and, through sharing them with one another, find helpful companionship. Character development is not the aim of “Nomadland,” but the film instead strives to show the power that lies within an unconventional life. Although the story is tinted with sadness, there are specific moments of joy that serve to recognize the gifts our world has to offer.
Nomad or not, “Nomadland” has an important message for everybody — that of the importance of community, the necessity of self-fulfillment and the idea that perhaps “home” is not a place, but something that can be carried with you.