A fiercely unsentimental story of loss and displacement, “Nomadland” veers between cinematic poetry and unflinching documentary. The contrast between the two can be a bumpy ride.
Frances McDormand’s Fern leads a cast of mostly nomadic characters. Some real nomads co-star as Fern’s fellow travelers.
Most of these wanderers in the American West are older folks, including widows and widowers who’ve become migrants without permanent jobs and houses. Traveling to their seasonal, menial employment opportunities, they’re also, like Fern, alone, a state of being reinforced by the West’s vast empty spaces.
Fern, a childless, 61-year-old widow, lives in the Ford Econoline van she has converted into a home away from the home she no longer has. A triple-tragedy preceded her nomadic life — the collective death of her husband, her town and the industry that had sustained the community for nearly 100 years.
Although McDormand and the “Nomadland” script, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” don’t portray Fern as a ghost, she’s a woman of few words who is somehow haunted. All the while, Fern and the other nomads who travel over Western roads and congregate in camps and RV parks are essentially haunting the land.
Fern’s story begins at a storage unit holding the remnants of her life in Empire, Nevada. On Jan. 31, 2011, the film’s opening on-screen words state, due to reduced demand for Sheetrock, US Gypsum Corp. closed its plant in Empire, a move that left it a ghost town.
After she retrieves some items from her storage unit, Fern hits the road in her scruffy van. Her first job is seasonal work at a massive Amazon fulfillment center. The banal work Fern does there looks authentically spirit-depleting. Ensuring that realism, McDormand acted the role of Fern in an actual Amazon center, “working” anonymously beside the facility’s real employees.
As Fern and the story moves along, the incognito McDormand also works at a sugar beet harvesting plant, a tourist attraction cafeteria and a national park. The decision to place the actress in these real-life work places endows “Nomadland” with a uniquely unsettling approximation of unvarnished reality.
Fern’s work can be tough on an older person who, as she reveals during a roadside conversation with a likewise wandering young man (Derek Endres), has knee trouble. Fern’s solitary life on the road, too, can be harsh, such as nights of sleeping in her van when the temperature outside is frigid.
Nevertheless, Fern makes friends and has some fun when she’s not prepping packages or scrubbing toilets. Still new to nomadic life, she also gets mentorship and companionship from Linda May and Swankie, two genuine nomads whose matter-of-fact on-screen presence could never be mistaken for acting.
As Fern journeys from the Nevada desert to the Badlands of South Dakota to the Pacific Northwest, she enjoys the scenery, soaking in the power of the stormy Pacific Ocean, for instance, and romping like a child amid the rocks of Badlands National Park.
The wanderers Fern meets during her travels include Dave, a decent fellow who gently lets Fern know that he’d like to spend more time with her. David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) plays the low-key Dave, a probably down-on-his-luck guy who nonetheless appears to harbor no bitterness about how his life has evolved.
Unlike Dave, McDormand’s Fern seemingly travels with her irretrievable past in the passenger seat. Quiet on the surface, usually revealing little about herself, Fern is a classic example of still waters running deep. Stormy, too. McDormand's much-lauded performance communicates all of that and more with a silent gaze.
Artful filmmaking that goes well beyond entertainment, “Nomadland” is, in its quiet and melancholy way, a haunting portrait of a woman who may not be as lost as she appears.
STARRING: Frances McDormand and David Strathairn
DIRECTED BY: Chloé Zhao
NOW SHOWING: At AMC Mall of La. 15, AMC Baton Rouge 16, Malco Gonzales Cinema and Movie Tavern Juban Crossing (Denham Springs); and streaming on Hulu starting Friday
RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 6 mins.
MPAA RATING: R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.)
WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED R? For some nudity
**** (Excellent), *** (Good), ** (Fair), * (Poor)