By Andrea Thompson
“Nomadland” is an odd film, one that leaves the best of impressions for all its faults. How else could I not think less of a film that begins with every indication of greatness, only to fall short of the mark?
It gets so damn close, and feels so lived in that it’s truly impossible to hold any kind of grudge. Chloé Zhao may deviate from her path, but her vision is never any less beautiful for it. Much like its protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand), “Nomadland” feels the need to ramble, and takes far too long to get to its mysterious but tender heart.
And what rambling it is. Chloé Zhao explored and dissected the American myth of the cowboy in one of 2017’s best films, “The Rider,” and she once again digs deep in “Nomadland” to subvert the idea of the pioneer through the modern nomad community, even if the pioneer designation comes via a condescending take by one of Fern’s more well off relations.
Thankfully, Zhao knows it’s more complicated than that. Just what drives a person to brave so many elements in the beautifully perilous American West, often alone? The answer is as varied and complicated as not only Fern herself, but many of the people who share her wanderlust, which often have to do with the increasing evasiveness of not just the American Dream, but any kind of basic security. Many of them are white, older, and found themselves financially adrift once they were no longer considered valuable in an increasingly corporate world.
Familiar? Yes, far too much. But as Zhao is intent on showing, there’s far more to Fern and her newfound community than what they’ve suffered through. As Fern drives across America in search of another job and paycheck while living out of her van and insisting she’s houseless rather than homeless, she finds her share of compassion as well as insecurity. Friends offer to put her up, strangers warn her of impending dangers, and many of the similarly impoverished people she meets and befriends laugh, joke, and find their share of joy.
But where everyone else is an open book, Fern herself is too much of a mystery for far too long. Other films about the marginalized, such as “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace” gave us well-defined characters whose motivations were clear, but why Fern wanders is a puzzle that can only be solved by answers. She seems like a loner, but she was once married and happily settled in a home before the plant in her small Nevada town shut down after 88 years and everything vanished, including her zip code.
Fern is also very capable of forming close and loving friendships. When she’s forced to part with them due to circumstance, we feel their absence along with her. Fern even has a love interest she continually, mostly accidentally meets up with due to their shared wanderer status, yet she pulls away each time their relationship risks deepening. She also doesn’t lack a few options, even if her well-meaning sister is occasionally patronizing.
By the time Fern’s full story is revealed, it’s a bit late for a deeper connection we’re obviously meant to have, and what should feel like pieces of a whole in the vein of “American Honey” feels too disjointed, and occasionally, even dull. But even if this is how Chloé Zhao misses the mark, “Nomadland” could never be mistaken for a film that’s unworthy of time or attention. When this kind of skill and vision is so beautifully, compassionately blended, it deserves both.