I could spend a moment using Chloé Zhao’s third feature, “Nomadland,” to reflect on my childhood and the yearning I have as an adult to hit the open road. However, I am starting a new year, something the main character reflects on in the film, and I won’t use this review to spend time reflecting on my life.
Zhao’s film, featuring Frances McDormand as Fern, is every bit the adventure you’ve heard it to be. And more.
A title card at the front of the film indicates a small desert town has been wiped out by the last recession when we meet Fern and learn who she is. McDormand, who has astounded us in films such as “Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” plays the weathered Fern.
“Weathered.” That might not be a fair way to describe Fern. However, it doesn’t just speak to her features. Makeup and Lighting do wonders for Fern; her look conveys a sense of the experiences and struggles. Zhao’s story uses that exterior to get us more interested in what makes Fern tick.
For all the traveling around the U.S. that Zhao has us undertake, the film has an exceptionally quiescent nature about it. The long, panning shots of the Badlands in South Dakota and the inward, reflective nature of Fern define the look and the feel of the film.
Fern has become a nomad, roaming from job to job, living in her van and a communal-like environment. It’s the characters that she meets that truly define Fern and symbolizes her place in the film. Names like, Swankie, a very steadfast individual who befriends Fern and reminds Fern to stop and smell the roses, to appreciate life’s little moments.
Dave (David Strathairn) is another fixture in Fern’s life. Their adventures at Wall Drug in South Dakota are life-affirming. It is this relationship that Zhao focuses Fern on. If you think about Fern’s character, she is much like the plant she is named after, offering shade to the other plants; a calming, serene effect. With Dave, she doesn’t have that same effect.
Underneath the calm and serene look, there is something more romantic going on. This same romanticism was something that I noticed with Zhao’s sophomore film, “The Rider,” in that you can feel the emotional circles that drive the character. Those emotions match the visual cues as well: Fern can offer comfort to everyone but herself.
When she hits some struggles, her wall of implacability starts to crumble, which is where McDormand shines. She has such a compassionate way about her, but she also engenders empathy in her struggles. Fern didn’t want the help. When she needed it, she realizes that any gulf between her and her family exists because of her fierce independence.
It is that independence, though, that sees Fern through her most demanding test, leaving “Nomandland” on a beautiful note.
“Nomadland” takes a beautiful journey throughout the western United States, reminds us to appreciate the smallest of moments and each other. More importantly, it reflects so much on a life on the open road; Zhao cleverly reflects how settlers roamed the open countryside looking for a little slice of heaven.
Either way you slice it, Chloé Zhao has delivered a unique and picturesque moment in time. “Nomadland” opens in a limited number of theaters and is available on Hulu starting February 19.