By Josh Silva
With no end to the pandemic in sight, many film festivals and repertory centers have adopted a hybrid of drive-in and virtual screenings, including the latest New York Film Festival, which recently concluded its 58th year. This festival’s centerpiece was Nomadland. In a normal year, it would have flown under the radar of most awards bodies. However, due to the dearth of prestige fare being released virtually, it has emerged as a frontrunner for this year’s awards season.
Written for the screen, directed, and edited by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland trails the journey of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who decides to traverse the midwest by van after her husband’s death and her factory hometown’s collapse. Amidst various gig work, Fern lives adjacent to a community of modern “nomads” like herself.
The film is carried by McDormand’s masterful performance, which she disappears into with ease, casting off the Hollywood hubris that most celebrities would bring into a portrayal of homelessness. She and David Straithairn effortlessly blend in alongside a supporting cast of real-life nomads. McDormand’s unvarnished presence, along with Zhao’s rhythmically wavelike editing (which recalls Terrence Malick’s midwestern odysseys), give authenticity to what could easily have been a monotonous story.
But while Fern is vividly illustrated in the minute, she remains surprisingly flat in the abstract. She struggles through life with an unwavering saintliness, calmly accepting her situation no matter how destitute it becomes. At her coldest, she yells once and apologizes in the next scene. The sole acknowledgment of her flaws, by her sister, is immediately backtracked by attributing them to Fern’s “bravery.” Many have noted how Nomadland shines a light on a virtually unrepresented stratum, one which remains obscured partly because people like Fern have no means of making a popular movie. Thus, the task of representation is delegated to Zhao, whose distance from the Nomads casts a patronizing gaze on them. Though Zhao grasps Fern’s interiority, her material conditions are treated as a necessary burden, rather than a systemic injustice. This results in a tame sanitization of her personality, placing nobility in a situation no one should be forced to live through. Perhaps Zhao feared that without her relentless likeability, Fern’s story would alienate the film’s target audience: those who unwrap the very Amazon Prime membership tape Fern packages in the opening minutes.
Of course, Fern, unlike the majority of unhoused people, is not forced into squalor. She embraces nomadism out of a longing to return to an unreachable past. The decaying midwestern landscape symbolizes the absence of her husband, while literally signifying the deterioration of her hometown brought about by, as one character in the film says, “the tyranny of the dollar.” Fern dwells in the unattainability of this past and finds a bitter solace in it. This melancholy contradiction, conveyed virtuosically by McDormand, is the film’s strength. However, the film’s martyring of its protagonist is its undoing. For all of Zhao’s skill in details, she is unable to assess the big picture.