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Review: 'Nomadland' is a film for all of us left out in the cold

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Frances McDormand in a scene from the film "Nomadland."

I can’t stop thinking about Fern in the snow.  

Played by Frances McDormand in Chloé Zhao’s stunning “Nomadland,” the character is living out of her van, traveling the country after both an economic bust in her industrial community and her husband’s death have left her adrift. In a scene that stuck in my head even before Austin was blanketed in white and its worn-out residents were left to freeze, Fern finds herself somewhere out in empty America, the vistas searing, blank and frigid. A woman approaches the van and tries to get Fern to seek shelter at a Baptist church from an oncoming blizzard.

Fern says she’ll be fine. 

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She’s taking care of herself, but whether she’s really “fine” in a world of loss and loneliness is one of the quiet questions nestled inside “Nomadland.” After a few screenings last year — it made Austin360’s Top 25 Movies of 2020 — it’s officially in theaters and on Hulu on Friday.  

If you’re reading this in Texas, you might have to wait a little longer to watch, what with our own winter storm and the catastrophic failure of our infrastructure. (As of this writing, and after a night spent watching my breath bloom into vapor inside a tent in my apartment, my power’s been out for about 65 hours, and I’m living out of the American-Statesman newsroom.) But when you do get the chance to watch this film — at the heart of which beats the thrum of a humanity that capitalism can bruise, but not destroy — I hope you’re able to see it with a new empathy. 

"Nomadland" is already an awards season frontrunner.

“Nomadland” introduces us to Fern as she takes a few things out of a storage locker — some dishes, a man’s coat she holds like it’s alive — and hits the open road. She sings “What Child Is This?” to herself in the van (named Vanguard) around Christmas; she checks into an RV park and looks like she’s afraid of a blow; she takes a barely lit New Year’s Eve meal by herself, party hat and all. Through conversations with people Fern meets along the way, we gather she and her husband lived in a company-run Nevada town, before the jobs dried up and her husband passed away. Now, she goes where she can to get any fleeting foothold.  

In one moving scene, she runs into some familiar faces who offer to let them stay with her. Bing Crosby sings about the holidays over a store PA system. A young girl whom Fern used to tutor asks if she’s homeless. Fern replies, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” 

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That’s really “Nomadland” in a nutshell, a movie that's all scenic route and also all destination. Zhao embeds us in a loose-knit community of wanderers whose home is wherever they find a fire to sit around and a gig to keep things going. The film was inspired by Jessica Bruder’s post-recession nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and the cast includes several real-life nomads, playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Two viewings in, I’m still not sure exactly what to make of the film’s use of real lives in the service of entertainment. Is it condescending? Anthropological? I think I feel respect come off the screen, with a romantic tint. 

But if you’re thinking about it after, it’s probably worth watching, and all credit due to Zhao for this lyrical journey. Sometimes “Nomadland” feels documentary, as when Fern and two nomad friends, Swankie and Linda May (real nomads playing versions of themselves), take in the thrills of an RV show. It’s almost voyeurism, as when we peer at Fern floating naked in a stream, driving through an impossibly tight canyon, surveying an abandoned building in her nightdress, shouting on a mountain, holding a baby she doesn’t know what to do with. For all the miles on this road trip, every exit feels worth the stop. 

Frances McDormand, left, and and David Strathairn play wanderers of the American highways in Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland."

McDormand, who can knock any ball out of the park — even if “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was a roadside car fire, she was great — is “Nomadland,” though. The camera is rarely far from her. Among ancient rock formations in a national park, she strikes an imposing figure. Mending a broken dish, she’s heartbreaking. This is one of those “it’s all in the face” performances for which it would be hard to begrudge her another Oscar. 

Most movies have suffered for being released in the past year, fragmented across drive-ins, limited pandemic theatrical runs, VOD drops and streaming exile. A few, though, are the better for it, and that’s where “Nomadland” stands. It is quiet; we’ve grown to know quiet a little better since March. We’re apart, and we’re together, and so are the nomads in the film. Zhao’s story hangs dignity on the shoulders of Americans gutted by profit-thirsty systems, where we’ve often been taught to see shame. Loss of love, loss of job, loss of place — you, like Fern, are more than these things, “Nomadland” tells us softly. 

Especially now, when we’ve been so treacherously left in the cold by the systems we were supposed to trust, it’s only the people we travel with who give us shelter. And sometimes, even for just a little bit, you’ve got to travel alone. 

'Nomadland'

Grade: A-

Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie

Director: Chloé Zhao

Rated: R for some nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Watch: In theaters and available on Hulu on Friday