“Nomadland” tells heartfelt tale of wandering lifestyle

Illustration by Elizabeth Cook

The film “Nomadland,” directed by Chloé Zhao, is a pensive story illustrating the van journey of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her 60s, through the deserts of South Dakota, Arizona and Nevada. Playing in states where theaters are open and released on Hulu, “Nomadland” has won two Golden Globe awards this year for Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director. 

Fern’s nomadic life begins when the 2008 recession results in the economic collapse of Fern’s hometown, Empire, Nevada. Empire became a ghost town after the closure of the U.S. gypsum plant, which employed  a majority of the town’s residents. Fern also suffers the death of her husband, furthering her financial and emotional instability. In short, her life on the road emerges out of necessity and from a need to escape Empire. 

McDormand brings the many losses of Fern to the forefront of her portrayal of the character. Disguised behind a face that presents a constant smile and nod expression is Fern’s fiery personality, characterized by her blatant and honest remarks sprinkled throughout the film. 

Zhao illustrates Fern’s life through a charming and heartwarming story rooted in the relationships Fern forms with people in similar situations as her. Despite her lack of material possessions, Zhao creates a rich life for Fern filled with community and friendship.

Many of the film’s other characters also live nomadically, some out of the desire for a simpler, more sustainable life founded on independence, fluidity and freedom to travel. This lifestyle directly reflects the circular plotline. It is distinguished from a conventional story arc by the repetition of important people and places leading to the end of the film, whereas Fern’s physical situation is mostly unchanged. 

Meeting with old friends offers a calming sense of stability, despite Fern’s lack of a physical home, by illustrating how one’s home is never far away if the people in it are close. This act of revisiting underscores the text that appears at the end of the film, reading “See you down the road,” which summarizes the constant interactions with friends from a plethora of different places while also reflecting the presence of van-life in the film. 

In contrast to the heartwarming characters in “Nomadland,” the cinematography offers an unembellished and authentic view of a life led exposed to the elements, unprotected by the walls of a house. The heat of the Arizona, South Dakota and Nevada deserts are contrasted by the chilling shots of a life lived between laundromats and winter nights spent in a cold van. The elemental imagery of desert rocks, campfires and wet clothes illustrates a life connected to the natural elements of our world: earth, fire and water. 

“Nomadland” also sparks discussions about materialism and the effects of consumerism. While the film does not offer direct commentary about these themes, it diverges from Fern’s direct approach to life. Fern does seasonal work packing boxes for Amazon, a modern symbol of materialistic values. Fully contradicting Amazon’s consumerist creed, Fern lives her life houseless and in the most minimal way possible. However, this is where the conversation ends, as Fern returns to work seasonally for Amazon and the movie ends positively. The American healthcare system is also not commented on, despite offering the perfect opportunity to analyze how the healthcare system works against the economic lower-class.

Zhao’s film delves deep into the mental journey that accompanies Fern’s physical trials. This artistic film is humbling, yet does not do enough to delve into the discourse needed to fully understand the politically-tied economic issues it portrays. Despite these shortcomings, “Nomadland” is a beautiful and heartwarming tale, and McDormand’s portrayal of Fern is a must-see.

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