REVIEW: ‘Nomadland’ is a superb film about the human condition

Director Chloe Zhao is on a roll, following up her phenomenal picture “The Rider” with one of 2020’s best films.

“Nomadland” tells the story of Fern , a woman who’s retrofitted a commercial-sized van to live out of. Fern, played by Frances McDormand, made her decision after two-life changing events occurred. One of them was the death of her husband, and the other was the closing of the main company in a small Nevada town which economically devastated the city. With nothing left, Fern decided to go out on the road.

The movie picks up with Fern working at an Amazon facility, earning paychecks during the busy holiday season. When the season comes to an end, the film follows her journey across the the Great Plains and western-mountain states. During her time living on the road, Fern meets several people who share their perspectives on life and what their plans are for the future.

Few movies explore the human condition in as much of a real, honest form as “Nomadland” does. The movie gives an unblemished look at people living in rough conditions, and how they are able to keep going despite hardships.

In doing so, the movie becomes a character study of a person who has to go on living after losing nearly everything, it explores the impacts of economic downturns on Americans, and it showcases how people, even strangers come to lean on each other when times are hard.

It’s all brought to the screen exceptionally well by Zhao, who also wrote the film, adapting the movie from a book with the same name.

“Nomadland” is certainly a road film, with Fern taking various jobs along her journey, whether it’s helping with sugar beat season near farms (which actually was nostalgic for me as I worked in North Dakota), or cleaning up RV Parks. Despite it being a road movie, though, there’s not clear end destination for Fern.

Courtesy Searchlight Pictures.

That’s completely OK in “Nomadland,” though. There’s no grand crescendo Fern’s journey is leading to, she’s just trying to live her life to the best of her ability. Her experiences are so intimately portrayed that one can’t help but be wrapped up in this portrait of her life, and the people she meets along the way provide the movie with other perspectives, which only enhance the experience.

Along with Zhao’s strong direction, “Nomadland” is of course successful thanks to a deeply moving performance by McDormand. The two-time Academy Award winner is incredible, providing a layered, complex portrayal of a person constantly on the move.

The character she portrays is confident in her decision to live the way she does, yet she certainly misses how things were in Nevada, too. Those feelings and more are very nicely brought to the screen by McDormand’s subtle, but emotional work.

Also deserving credit is David Strathairn as David, a man she meets along her journey a few times. Strathairn gives an impressive performance, which is arguably his best work since he starred in 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He gives the character a nice charm, yet keeps the performance somewhat reserved, as David is still dealing with some family issues of his own.

“Nomadland” is also greatly helped by its stunning imagery. The film is absolutely gorgeous in how it captures the vast lands of the American west and the freedom of the open road. There’s also really good, intimate camera work capturing how Fern lives in her small van/home.

This is a top tier filmmaking effort by Zhao, as well as the rest of the cast and crew. The acting is superb and what’s explored is moving. 5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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