The Road Less Travelled

Nomadland took a long time to arrive, but it’s worth the wait

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Nomadland
Disney Plus
April 9

Directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival last September. It won top awards at both festival (the Golden Lion in Venice, and People’s Choice in Toronto), and followed that up in March with six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. For a film with so many accolades, it’s strange it didn’t go to video on demand like most movies do these days. But it’s finally become available through Disney Plus.

A stunning character piece that doubles as an indictment of America’s forgotten peoples, Nomadland cuts deep. The film is based on a book by journalist Jessica Bruder, and offers a searing critique of the gig economy, which has disenfranchised many working class people, forcing them to become reluctant members of the so-called precariat. But it also showcases the resilience of the human spirit and the value of community in times of need.

The plot (as far as there is one): widowed and jobless, Fern (Frances McDormand, slightly less misanthropic than usual) leaves her deserted town and takes to the road. She supports herself through part-time jobs, and lives in her van to save on rent. Fern’s planning revolves around her seasonal gig in an Amazon warehouse. The rest of the time she tours the American southwest where the landscape is vast and parking is free.

Fern’s lifestyle is more common than she imagines, and she soon joins a community of rudderless loners very comfortable in their own skin. Even though it’s a solitary, rough-and-tumble existence, Fern finds peace and contentment. The plot offers her a couple of “outs”, but the more time she spends on the road, the harder it becomes to rejoin what we understand as society. Not that Fern cares. For her, independence and self-reliance are worth the adversity.

There’s not much of a storyline here, but it doesn’t matter because McDormand just draws your attention. She fully inhabits her character, and it’s fascinating to see her interact with others in the same boat (most of whom are non actors, except for David Strathairn as an interested suitor).

America’s open spaces have rarely been shot so lovingly. Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards (God’s Own Country) prove that knowing how to frame is half the battle. Zhao is the real deal. Her ability to blend fiction and reality and deliver a product that in no way feels artificial is uncanny (see her 2017 film The Rider). McDormand’s interactions with real life nomads — their lives on the road reflected on their faces — feels true in a way scripted dialogue can only dream of capturing.

One element of Nomadland did rub me the wrong way, particularly after a second viewing. The film treats Amazon with kid gloves, presumably because Jeff Bezos allowed Zhao and team to shoot inside one of its mammoth warehouses. Granted, Nomadland goes for a larger theme—namely, the cost of personal freedom. But it’s also trying to have its cake and eat it too. For that, I’m knocking off half a star.   

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