After losing everything in the Great Recession, a woman (Frances McDormand) embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad. Along the way, she encounters others like her and forms bonds with them, but still remains ever moving...
It's hard for someone who is living through a housing crisis to look at something like 'Nomadland' and grasp the reason and inherent attraction of it. The thesis of the movie appears to be that Frances McDormand's character has completely rejected the idea of roots or connection, instead opting to glide through the outbacks of America and effectively go where whatever work it is she can find takes her. It feels so at odd with what we know and understand, yet, by the end, it makes some sense.
Frances McDormand's character only had one person - her husband - holding her in place, and when he passed on, she too felt like she passed on into this existence. However, the reasons for this decision in her character are not just emotional. They're tangible too. The mine in which she and her husband worked closed down, the small town in which they lived effectively disappeared over a few short months, and she took to the road as a means of solace and staying alive. The movie opens with her character working in a dispatch centre for Amazon and sleeping in her van after her shift ends. When the busy season ends, she packs up and moves on to the next town, and that's pretty much 'Nomadland' in a nutshell.
Frances McDormand's character arrives in a new town, finds work, does it, makes a few friends along the way, then when it's over, she waves goodbye and gathers her few belongings and takes off again. The movie is a series of vignettes of a life lived in motion, with no firm guidance in anything other than the transient nature of life itself. Scenes play out unencumbered by anything resembling structure, instead just petering out as they would in reality. Here and there, director Chloé Zhao pauses the flow to focus on a gorgeous evening sky, or some great vista, before moving on and on.
The pacing isn't fast or furious, but it does move with purpose. Whenever there's a bit of grass growing around some of the relationships that Frances McDormand's character has, such as a tenuous, almost juvenile one with fellow nomad David Strathairn, she pulls it up and moves on. It's frustrating, but it's built into the movie that she will eventually amble on to the next place. Another frustration is that director Chloé Zhao never effectively interrogates the larger reasons as to why Frances McDormand's character is on the road beyond the emotional ones.
Sure, we understand that part of it clearly and maybe that's enough, but 'Nomadland' never fully examines the whole picture of how this character's life came to be in such a way. For a movie that's all about characters and giving them depth and understanding, it feels like you're only getting so much of the story. Then again, perhaps if it did do go into finer detail, it could potentially lose the intimacy that makes the movie so appealing and affecting.
McDormand's performance is clear and lucid, giving herself over to small moments and little gestures, and the non-actor cast that ripple through the movie are all of them compelling in their own unique way. David Strathairn, as previously mentioned, is able to gather himself up and go with the flow of it all quite easily. 'Nomadland' really is a slight movie, but it's one that has a real, beating heart in Frances McDormand, and the imagery that Chloé Zhao captures has a romanticism to it that goes a long way to explaining why someone would take to the road.
In the end, it's all out there, just waiting to be seen.
'Nomadland' is available to stream on Disney+ from April 30th.