Chloe Zhao’s Inspired ‘Nomadland’ Resonates After Year of Uncertainty

Consistently nuanced actress Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao’s poignant Nomadland, a film that will undoubtedly resonate with both Academy voters and a wide-ranging audience looking for hope after a year of earth-shattering uncertainty. The grey-toned journey of life on the road feels more like a documentary than a scripted “Neo-Western drama,” as it’s described.

Set in 2011, McDormand stars as Fern, an out-of-work widow who loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down. Packing her entire life into a van, she sets out on the road and picks up seasonal shifts at an Amazon fulfillment center and other odd jobs to get by. It’s out of the ordinary, making it an extraordinary subject for Zhao to explore and for McDormand to perfect.

Every person we meet along the way is a non-actor (save for David Straitharn) who live their lives free of convention in search of a greater purpose, or at least greater self-contentment. There’s Linda May and Swankie and Bob Wells, all “characters” in the truest sense of the word. Their perspectives on living life from place to place is another take on minimalism, a philosophy that has resonated with American viewers as of late. But each viewer can take from it what they will – the film is meditative that way. It’s a blank slate for Fern and, in a way, a blank slate for the audience. 

“No one ever says goodbye. We just say, I’ll see you down the road.” While this film was made before the Coronavirus pandemic, its release and awards buzz come at the perfect time when more than half a million people in the United States of America have lost their lives to Covid-19 at this point. Every human being has been forced into a resilient-like state, metaphorically packing what they deem necessary into their van-like bubbles. But Zhao’s Nomadland is a silver lining. It’s a reminder that, while our journeys may look different, we’re never alone. It’s a reminder that we can change at any age, meet new people along the way and know that whoever we’re missing, we’ll see down the road.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in the movie “Nomadland.”