I’ll See You Down the Road in Nomadland

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 godhow 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.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

9 comments

  1. I was prompted to watch by the first few words of your review – preview text in an email – and wanted to thank you for the thoughtful wording. I just finished watching and was astounded by the simple profoundness of Nomadland. I often leave stories like this with an aching sense of wanderlust, so much so that I’ve gone out of my way to avoid them when the practical need to suppress that desire – you know like during a pandemic -seems too daunting. While Nomadland certainly entertained the urge to explore, that’s not what I felt when the credits rolled. I was left with a simple appreciation for life, a positive reminder to appreciate the moment and to simply live, regardless of how simple or how extravagant that moment is. It’s rare for a story to motivate not any one thing in particular but just inspire your outlook, and in a time like now I’m sure most could benefit from one that does. Thanks for the push!

  2. My own very brief capsule which was rushed this morning is as follows: “Chloe Zhao’s poetic, lyrical, meditative and elegiac “Nomadland” for me vies with “First Cow” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as the film of the year, and it provides the ever talented Frances McDormand with the finest role and performance of her career for me. Chloe Zhao crafted a tale of grief in aching episodic terms and both the alluring landscapes and Ludovico Einaudi’s ravishing and sublime score (my favorite of the year) completely astounding technical virtuosity in a tonally resplendent picture.” But David, your own scene-specific superlative reviews was a real joy to read, especially as we are completely on the same page lock, stock and barrel!

    Even you calling it “one of the best films of the century” is quite reasonable!

  3. I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t think much of this. It’s a real patience tester, and I’d grade my patience at about a C or C-minus. There are some beautiful segments and lovely cinematography, but it too often veers off into “nothing much happening” territory for too long. The number of shots showing McDormand wandering around vacant streets and empty desert valleys became tedious after a while and took away from the overall story. It was ultimately depressing and I have no interest in ever revisiting this. I’m glad you got a lot out of the movie, but it didn’t resonate with me at all.

  4. How can I have missed your review of Nomadland! You’ve offered a perspective that has captured the essence of the film. My prediction (and hope) is that it will go all the way to the summit, grasping the Oscar Best Picture and Chloé Zhao the Best Director. I watched her previous film The Rider at NYFF in 2017 and was absolutely stunned. Zhao has surpassed herself in Nomadland. And of course, as you have mentioned, Frances M. is a definite asset. The film is an understated yet lyrical exploration of the bare essence of being human. Your words are apropos in matching its beauty. I watched it online at the virtual TIFF last Sept. Written a review on it published in the subscription-based online film site Vague Visages. Would love to view it again, and this time leave some ripples on my own blog. Anyway, like one of your commenter noted, both Nomadland and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow are in my Top Ripples 2020 list.

    • Glad to see we are in agreement! This could be one of those rare years where the Oscars actually award Best Picture to the best film of the year (I honestly can’t remember the last time they did…maybe when 12 Years a Slave won?)…though I also loved Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but in different ways than Nomadland. It’s hard to compare two films on different wavelengths and made in different styles.

      • Our wish came true! What a wonderful win for Nomadland at the Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a most weird (maybe you can come up with a better word) awards show during a pandemic. The shifting of the Best Picture, the top prize, to the third last makes the ending an anti-climax, diminishing the honor for the film and its director. I’d like to watch it again and this time, write an article contrasting Zhao with Malick.

        On another note, congrats to your short stories collection! Glad things are really turning out good in your writing journey. All the best in the road ahead!

        On yet another note, just a thought as I know you’re busy with your writing and family, I’m hosting a Read Along of The Brothers Karamazov at Ripple Effects. A leisurely schedule from May to July, so not to be an ‘interruption’ of life but an enjoyment. Would be great if you could join, for I’d appreciate your thoughts on this classic.

        One last note, like the Spin’s new theme.

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