When it comes to long term critical acclaim, there are very few actresses in the last two decades who have built as strong a portfolio as Frances McDormand. From her work with the Coen brothers like Burn After Reading and Moonrise Kingdom to her Oscar winning turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand truly is among the acting elite, someone whose movies spark interest for me simply through her presence at this point. Since it’s world premiere last September, Nomadland has done nothing but pick up awards wherever it has competed, so I was once again excited to see what this Oscars frontrunner had to offer.
Based on stories in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century, Nomadland tells the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her sixties who, after the death of her husband and the extinction of her work deprived Nevada hometown, decides to embark on a nomadic life of cross country van travel, picking up seasonal work along the way. With less of a focus on ‘plot’ and more of a focus on characters, the film takes viewers on an atmospheric adventure through the vast wilderness of the United States, inviting us into the transient lifestyle and introducing us to the people, the culture, the good and the bad of being completely detached from any kind of ‘traditional’ life.
Right off the bat I’ll say that I think Nomadland is an amazing film. It’s a quiet, relatively rambling slow burn kind of story, but the world and subculture that is portrayed is an absolutely fascinating one, and the societal echos that these small scale characters and events create for the wider context of the 21st century United States is incredibly poignant. What is presented on screen becomes so immersive and enigmatic that you actually forget that vandwelling and travelling from place to place to complete menial labour jobs isn’t actually the ‘normal’ way to live. It’s in the moments that Fern is returned to more traditional environments and dynamics that things feel weird and out of place.
If I were to level any complaint, it would be that the film perhaps neglects some of the harsher, more dangerous aspects of a being an older woman travelling and living alone in such a manner, but that would have made Nomadland an entirely different kind of picture. There are moments of realism and grit depicting the practical struggles of vandwelling, things like toilet problems and vehicle damage and solitary living, but there is nothing in the film that crosses the line into real fearful territory. Nomadland instead exists in a sort of whimsical, nostalgic space that almost makes Fern’s journey something of a fairytale. It’s an odd vibe to get your head around, because even with the various obstacles presented and the cultural questions raised, the film still feels magical and lyrical.
Frances McDormand, as you might have guessed, is amazing in the role of Fern. Shedding the hard, abrasive edge that she perfected in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand retains a slight air of stoicism but combines it with a rich warmth that permeates through all of her interactions with the film’s cast of characters. Widowed both from the loss of her husband and the loss of her hometown, the pain clearly runs deep in Fern, but there is also a lightness to the character that makes her instantly likeable. I felt bereft myself as the film began to run to a close, because I just wanted to spend more and more time in her company and follow her on her ever expanding journey. At this point in time, I can’t think of a better candidate for Best Actress at the Oscars.
No doubt giving Nomadland that extra feel of authenticity is the fact that most of the film’s other speaking parts are played by non-actors who actually live the depicted nomadic life. You won’t have known names like Swankie and Linda-May beforehand, but you will absolutely fall in love with them over the course of 110 minutes. You have Frances McDormand to anchor the cast with her signature brand of understated star quality, but I can’t imagine any other kind of supporting cast than the one presented. This doesn’t feel like the kind of film that you can achieve without a large dose of grounded reality, and Swankie and co. provide that sensationally.
Overall, Nomadland is absolutely one of my favourite films of the Oscar race so far. It’s a movie that somehow gives you feelings of nostalgia for a situation and lifestyle that you have probably never come close to experiencing. Beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure, a masterclass in how small moments can fit together to build a bigger picture that is almost too complex and wide reaching to comprehend. As someone who has always lived in a country smaller than Texas, it always astounds me just how vast and open swathes of the United States appear to be, and Nomadland does an excellent job of highlighting this space to such atmospheric effect. I’m running straight out to buy the book this film is based on, because I’m craving more. If a movie can spark that kind of fire in me, then I know it’s had a huge impact.