Nomadland: a beautifully dark light on America

There’s a black hole in every van,” says David to Fern, reflecting on the nature of itinerants like themselves to collect and hoard. The remark, though nonchalant in its delivery, has super-massive implications of its own, suggesting an intricate, unknowable deepness to the lives of others.

But rather than trap light itself, Chloe Zhao’s Oscar frontrunner Nomadland reflects it, illuminating for its audiences a world that they are both a part of and hidden from, all with staggering observations.

Fern (Frances McDormand) carries a lantern through a “nomad” rendezvous. McDormand’s performance is yet another signal that she is one of the greatest actors of all time. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a van-dwelling widow who travels at great lengths to find work after she has lost both her husband and, due to economic collapse, her entire town. Though Fern may be fictional, her story is supported by several real life “nomads,” individuals who, like her, are peripatetic in their employment. Though these fellow travelers (all non-professional actors save for David Stathairn as David) can oftentimes stumble quite conspicuously over Zhao’s more expository dialogue, the writer-director has accepted these flaws if it can mean capturing their most candid moments.

It is the very reality of Nomadland that is all-at-once its most frustrating and frightening attribute. We may loathe ourselves for the freedom we see in the nomads, the very freedom that some of them may see in themselves. But our jealousy would only be our privilege, as many of those we see in the film are drawn to their lifestyle not out of desire but out of necessity, driven to their situation by a system that continues to exploit them as they need it for their own survival.

That’s just one of the no-easy-answer truths that Fern must face on her journey, and though always striving for high spirits Fern’s positivity can at times seem affected, almost as though a resilient defense against difficulty of any kind. McDormand, in a tender and impressively oxymoronic performance, is both optimistic and full of resentment. To deliver a dual role of this nature—one that comes not in separate scenes but at every teary-eyed line delivered—signals Frances as one of the greatest actors of all time.

There is a vastness to Nomadland, an emptiness that as much challenges viewers as it does reward them for braving through its more barren elements. Light on plot but ever-expanding into that beautiful horizon with its deep implications, Nomadland is less a movie than it is a mood. It is high art, and with its all-natural, painterly cinematography from Joshua James Richards, the film is more at home being hung up on a wall and framed than it is being projected off a screen.

In this more suitable environment, one might call Nomadland a “conversation piece.” I just hope people start talking soon.

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