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Nomadland Presents Undressed Squalor as Reflective Richness

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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Right there with “great,” “epic,” “tour de force,” and many other film criticism terms, the adjective “raw” is one of those vague words exhaustingly assigned to any number of traits in a film. Some viewers see that and go “what does that even mean?” or run with a poor guess. If it’s only dropped for effect without details, the resulting impact is simpler than even the meaning of the word. Watch it roll away like a tumbleweed.

Even a simplified dictionary like the Collins one, assigns no less than ten definitions for “raw.” Critics and essayists (including this very one, guilty as charged) are likely selecting the first, fourth, or fifth definition out of that bunch with their descriptive intentions. Throw a digital dart soon at any review of Chloe Zhao’s celebrated festival prize winner Nomadland on the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic dartboards and you will nearly be guaranteed to find that targeted word. While overused, it is fitting.

Starring two-time Academy Award-winning firebrand Frances McDormand as a houseless drifter, Nomadland strives so very effectively to present cinema au naturel. Populated predominantly by a host of actual citizens and non-actors of this ilk, the film occupies real lives with mobile roots on more genuine spaces without a set in sight. Shot on rustic outdoor locations, floating movements and piercing stares shot at magic hours brighten undressed squalor into a vision of reflective richness. Rawness comes out of this movie’s pores.

Even so, circle back to the head-scratching audience question of “what does it even mean” though. Between the connotations of “natural state,” “strong basic feelings,” or “simple, powerful, and real” in those three most prevalent definitions of “raw,” the expanse for shading, or also the lack of it, is awfully wide. The creative innovation of a proficient writer comes out in the expounded context and careful appraisal that surrounds that very broad word. While it may seem impossible or incomplete describing Nomadland without it, are many displayed facets of rawness enough for a larger value of significance? That’s the follow-up to musing on meaning.

Set in 2012, McDormand plays Fern, a Nevada widower who lost her husband to illness, her job to a gypsum factory closing, and her entire ZIP code to the economic downturn of the Great Recession. Hailing from the ghost town of Empire, Nevada, Fern is self-described as “houseless” rather than homeless as she moves from one position of seasonal labor to another, including the good money of an Amazon distribution warehouse, living out of her retrofitted utility van,

We are introduced to Fern going through a storage unit looking through boxed items. Some of them seem arbitrary while others seem to matter and even draw clutched tears. Only so much will fit and function in her Vanguard and with each little modification, living becomes more compact, efficient, and comfortable. A unique skill set of self-sufficiency and necessary resourcefulness is required, ranging from spit-and-glue temporary fixes to crafting retrofitted replacements. Fern is growing in these reduce-reuse-recycle means and aptitudes.

Alone as Fern may be as a traditional family unit, she is not alone in work or circumstances. Fern shadows Linda May at Amazon and follows her on the road navigating a scatter plot of legal parking locations and pop-up RV parks. Linda May turns Fern on to a more permanent path of nomadic living, one guided by the in-person mentorship of Bob Wells, the “Born to Wander” influencer whose CheapRVliving YouTube channel has nearly a half-million subscribers and one supported by a benevolent new peer in Dave (Oscar nominee David Strathairn).

Fern and Dave share a meal in lawn chairs outside.
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

When expanded beyond the personal journey of Fern, Nomadland unfolds to reveal an entire subculture of fascinating fluidity and poignant detail found right here in this country. The keyword chunk is “culture.” It wholly exists at this socioeconomic level with camaraderie, unselfish support, and uplifting creative vitality. One of Fern’s other mentors, an aging senior named Swankie, rhetorically asks at one point if home “is just a word or something you carry with you.” She’s dead right with these uncommon mobile roots that have become more connected to nature and community than cities with streets, mansions, and millions.

To the uninformed likely sitting and watching Nomadland in heated and well-appointed homes, the next question is likely a brash “who would choose to life like this” with an exasperating “I can’t even” at considering such a prospect. Looking down their noses, they would miss the societal causes that give way to the dignity carried by the people within this way of life. These were individuals who were older, alone, lost, discarded, unlucky, and unprepared before they banded together for soulful support and a movement of survival and self-improvement. There is freedom and beauty found here and every informal troubadour has a story filled from the miles of their lives.

That said, this odyssey has highs and lows for Fern living among the saguaros, grasslands, or rocks across the American West. No matter how much she has learned to take care of herself, painful solitude creeps in. Self-reliance only fulfills so much enterprising spirit. Courage can only stave off so many endangering risks faced by a woman her age alone. In many ways, Chloe Zhao’s film, her follow-up to The Rider before going Marvel with The Eternals, has the same range of stamina and lethargy. Unvarnished prestige too has its limits.

Director Chloe Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards observes Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland.
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The delicate captures of cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider) create this inspiring canvas of rambling solace. Moving from moments of stillness and strolls touring the bustle of these collected communities is engrossing. Highlighted behind an excellent mixture of handheld close-ups and wide-tracked shots, the sunsets and sunrises pierce the visual breadth. Go ahead and call it making the unpretty pretty if you must.

Scaling her signature fervor way down, Frances McDormand melds into the intensity and fragility of Fern. There are no shout-to-the-rafters rants or lashes of madness. Instead, she is understated beyond measure, scene after scene. In her performance, there is a steadiness to bear burdens, give witness, and provide empathy to fill canyons and vistas. That’s the rawness to label and flesh out with clarity. If that screen-clicking dart you throw at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic doesn’t land on raw, it will land on brave, but that’s a whole other stump and story.

There is an ambiguity in Nomadland that comes and goes with the stoicism of McDormand and its narrative arc. Fears are masked by her poise, no doubt. But as intentionally lessened as she is, the actress’s towering presence, which includes Strathairn as well, reminds us this is still a movie, no matter how much non-fiction reality is around her. Controlled by a methodical pace of encounters and diversions, this movie can be a straying drift matching its geographic wandering. Often, you’re back to “what does it even mean” when the tedium isn’t found to be entirely compelling.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Assocation and the Online Film Critics Society.

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