A woman displaced by the Great Recession is the central character of Chloé Zhao highly acclaimed 2020 drama, Nomadland, starring Francis McDormand. McDormand plays Fern, a widow rendered jobless after the closing of a Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. A title card at the start of the film informs us that the plant had been operational for eighty-eight years. Since its closure, Empire became nonexistent; the town had its zip code removed just six month later. Fern loses her home, sells most of her belongings, and begins living out of a small white van. Nomadland chronicles Fern’s journey as she travels from one temp job to another. Along the way she crosses paths with fellow nomads who traverse barren landscapes in their caravans, migrating with the seasons in pursuit of work, and creating ad hoc communities along the way.
As one might expect with a title like Nomadland, scenic wide-open spaces figure prominently. But Fern’s hardships and dreary lifestyle dampen their majesty. The snow-covered plains and vast deserts are a constant reminder of her sudden fall from middle-class security, and her prospects for lifting herself out of poverty look just as bleak as the landscapes.
After a flat tire waylays Fern, a kindred spirit named Swankie, played by real life nomad Charlene Swankie, imparts some survival tips and eventually opens up about her life; she has terminal cancer, but decided to spend her remaining time on the open road rather than prolonging the inevitable with chemo. Fern’s situation, living one precarious day at a time, is not unlike Swankie’s, creating a subtle parallel between the psychological effects of catastrophic joblessness and being diagnosed with a fatal illness.
Chloé Zhao previous film, The Rider, told the heart-wrenching story of a young cowboy’s struggle following a debilitating head injury. The entire cast consisted of non-actors who often played slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, creating a documentary aesthetic that heightened the emotional impact. Zhao tries a similar tack with Nomadland. In this case, though, Francis McDormand, who also shares producing credits, brought the project to Zhao’s attention, which no doubt led to her being cast as Fern. There’s no question McDormand is a talented actress and an intriguing screen presence, but not necessarily the best choice for the lead. She seems oddly out of place among a cast composed almost entirely of unfamiliar faces. No matter how little makeup she wears, or how low-key her performance, it’s hard to see past the many larger than life characters she’s brought to the big screen. When McDormand, as Fern, gets behind the wheel of a luxury caravan and pretends to drive and toot the horn, it doesn’t feel like we’re watching a real person, it feels like a slightly self-conscious attempt at portraying one. On the other hand, the performance given by the only other veteran actor, David Stathairn, who plays Fern’s wannabe paramour, doesn’t suffer from distracting star power. Considering the accolades McDormand has received, I’m probably in the minority, but I can’t help but wonder how much more I would have enjoyed Nomadland had Zhao replicated the verisimilitude of The Rider by casting a complete unknown for the starring role. Regardless, Nomadland is an engaging and sobering tale of survival within the wake of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.