Nomadland Review: Frances McDormand's film is a magnificent 'slow burn' take on grief, loneliness and solitude

Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand are a match made in cinematic heaven as Nomadland is an intricate, sensitive introspection of and an ode to the lost and restless, who carry their 'homes' with and within them.
Nomadland Review: Frances McDormand's film is a magnificent 'slow burn' take on grief, loneliness and solitude
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Nomadland Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn

Nomadland Director: Chloé Zhao

Nomadland Stars: 4/5

"What's remembered, lives. I spent too much of my life just remembering," Fern (Frances McDormand) churns out in the closing few moments of Nomadland where her surprising vulnerability makes a sombre appearance rather than her contemplative, stoic attitude. How many of us have had the sudden desire to just leave our mundane lives behind and head out on a journey with no clear destination in sight? Nomadland gives us an in-depth look at the 'houseless' seekers, with not just the thrills but the speed bumps as well.

Nomadland caters to Chloé Zhao's brand of direction and storytelling as it's an intricate perspective of 'outsiders' amid the vast expanse of some breathtaking US landscapes. The film, which is based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century tells us the story of Fern, who in the wake of the Great Recession, loses her husband, her job as well her house's zip code because the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down. Selling almost all of her belongings, Fern takes up the nomadic life with an RV truck being transformed into her new house. Travelling cross-country, Fern takes up seasonal jobs where she encounters others like her and what we get in return is a fruitful, intimate outlook on why these characters have chosen such a life, which is usually frowned upon by society.

Interestingly, real-life nomads Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells play themselves and instead of romanticising life on the road, we get to know the trials and tribulations which led to such a drastic decision made by them. Linda has worked since the age of 12 and has two daughters only to be left with 500 dollars as her retirement fund. Swankie only has a few months to live because of her cancer diagnosis. Bob, an inspirational vandweller, provides support to thousands but continues to grieve the death of his son. All three of them aren't tools to motivate Fern and are rather temporary sources of companionship she stumbles upon from time to time. Then there's Dave (David Strathairn), a potential love interest Fern chooses to keep at bay. While a nomadic lifestyle is more up his alley, Dave's son convinces him to come back to society to be there for his son and grandchild. Initially reluctant, Dave realises that staying back is something that satisfies him and tries to convince Fern to live with him. This is just one of the two instances (another involving visiting her sister to borrow some money) where you realise that the nomadic life wasn't just an interim relief from grief for Fern, it's a lifestyle best suited for her as an individual. Hence, Fern refusing her sister and Dave's kind offers a stern refusal. 

In what was an emotionally stirring act, Frances gives her most understated performance to date and the complex character sketch of Fern is dealt with grace, warmth and determination. With the odds against her at every risky turn, Fern refuses to let shackles deter her and rather moves forward with a head held high. She laughs loudly and cries in the corner but every emotion leads to a concluding one; an undaunting one of sighed acceptance.

This was especially seen when she contemplates staying with Dave and when she visits Empire again and has a momentary breakdown, reminiscing the life she once possessed and now, was nothing but dust and smoke. We also get to revel in her moments of joy, whether it be having a laugh with Linda or enjoying the scenic beauty of the lakes and the mountains. At no given point did Frances make us feel that she was a two-time Academy Award winner and not Fern, a nomad in the midst of real-life nomads. And those eyes, the stories they told and the varying emotions felt in the subtlest of ways, in a New York minute! That's the magic of Frances McDormand. Zhao has definitely given unlimited freedom to Frances' acting prowess to run wild and free.

While David embraced us with yet another underrated performance with pleasing ease, Linda, Swankie and Bob added more hopefulness with their real-life stories, striking the relatability factor in their pursuit of tranquillity. The equation of friendship Fern shares with Linda, the respect she feels for Swankie (with a devastating yet sweet 'see you down the road' sequence') and the emotional connection to Bob's empathy spearheads the wheels of Fern's own conscience.

ALSO READ: Oscars 2021 Nominations: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, Chadwick bag top spots; 8 films in running for Best Picture

Nomadland is a slow burn and not an easy watch for everyone as it dissects different stages of loneliness and the grief that follows through. It's in the small instances; like when Fern holds on tightly to her late husband's jacket taking a euphoric sniff, when Dave accidentally breaks Fern's precious cutlery gifted by her grandparents and she painstakingly pieces it back together, when Fern, not used to sleeping in comfy beds finds refuge in her beat-up old RV truck or when Fern encounters a young nomad named Derek (Derek Endres) twice, giving him some love advice with a good ol' Shakespeare sonnet, that you understand just how lost in translation these characters are. As Chloé has written and edited Nomadland, along with directing and producing, you see the careful, artistic interlacing between the characters and their respective storylines, which never overstays its welcome but rather are like the occasional hitchhikers in Fern's dramatically lonesome life. Instead of showing the nomadic life as a wanderlust la la land, we're shown the good, the bad and the ugly.

Joshua James Richards's aesthetic cinematography almost has a childlike quality, especially in the driving sequences which feel like we're amongst the strangers following Fern on her journey. The wide landscapes amid a sole surviving Fern add the much needed visual drama but never feels like a tourist tour. Ludovico Einaudi's respective score is a magnificent addition to further the tale and the gravitating whirlwind of emotions each character feels: "Just help me laugh at pain / Help me smile away the tears." Also, a special nod goes to the brilliant sound-mixing as inanimate objects like Vanguard (Fern's beloved RV truck) and creaky beach chairs breathe life and add a raw, rustic approach to the non-narrative storytelling.

In finality, Nomadland is Chloé Zhao's sensitive introspection of and an ode to the lost and the restless, who carry their 'homes' with and within them, dealing with grief, loneliness and solitude. "There was nothing in our way," Fern signs off.