Fern lived for many years with her husband in company track housing in the town of Empire. They both liked their jobs, their town, the people. It might have looked to an outsider like nothing special, but, man, that view when you stepped out their back door…miles and miles of desert before you hit those beautiful mountains. Nothing standing in their way. But then the company that built the town shuts down. The town vanishes. Fern’s husband dies. And she has nowhere and everywhere to go.
Fern, as played by the incomparable France McDormand, is the fictional character through which director/screenwriter Chloe Zhao chronicles the true stories of the itinerate workers who are our American Nomads, and whose tales spawned the book by Jessica Bruder upon which the film is based. Fern bears witness to the stories of real people playing themselves, scattered in an economic diaspora across the American West following the Great Recession. Eventually they bear witness to her story, too, as it unfolds and reveals itself slowly, peeling away like an onion, layer by layer.
There are so many great, wonderful, profound, sad, beautiful things about Nomadland. One woman’s story about kayaking alone beneath a cliff pock-marked with swallows’ nests, whose beautifully cracked eggs litter the river like a work of art, aches as it is orally told, and then shimmers into nothingness when recreated and shared through video over the phone. Her story represents all those stories we hear about from strangers on social media…those moments people are desperate to share so they can leave their little mark…that never quite live up to how they are told, yet are beautiful and sad and special in their own unique way.
Rare is the film that speaks to so much truth, using recent events that still scar so many people to hold up a mirror to America, an America that is hurting even more now in the wake of the worst global pandemic in over a century. It makes you wonder about the people Fern meets, the people like Fern…my god…how are they doing now?
Zhao’s screenplay echoes the voices of the marginalized roaming this nation and the real people she films. Fern is a woman who was taught you can keep someone alive if you just keep remembering them…but then staring out at the beautiful wasteland, she realizes she’s spent almost all of her life remembering.
When do we finally get to live?
The man listening to her story offers his own tale of heartache and offers to those mourning those who had to depart a hopeful message that we’ll all see each other again eventually…down the road.
The direction, the cinematography (by Joshua James Richards), the music (by Ludovico Einaudi), the performances, the themes, the feelings…I loved every single thing about Nomadland.
It’s possibly one of the best films of the century. It is a testament to our times. A hundred years from now it could seem like an archaeological find, or maybe it will still feel like home.