Nomadland ★★★★½

The reference to 'Nomad' in the title of Chloe Zhao's new film has a twofold meaning. Quite literally, Frances McDormand lives a nomadic existence. She lives in her van and travels across the expanse of the US countryside, stopping along the way for periods of seasonal work. She's like a member of an ancient pre-agriculture civilization, always moving, no home, following a roaming food source. Only she roams and camps in her van. In Zhao's film, Nomad also refers to a character trait and lifestyle. If there is one, NOMADLAND's thesis is that there is such a thing as a very intimate personality type of someone who was meant to live life with no fixed address.

Instead of following a traditional rising-action story arc, NOMADLAND instead is more of a hundred minutes of visual-poetry. It's a slice of life film, but one told in moments and emotions that surface from the minutiae of nomadic journeyman struggles. The events aren't super important, mostly, but they reflect the circumstances and limitations that they encounter--the challenges and boundaries of the lifestyle. For instance, a flat tire for someone living in a van is an extraordinary problem; broken dishes could actually carry an emotional weight.

NOMADLAND follows McDormand from one short-term job to another. They are just seasonal opportunities--packing Amazon packages for the holidays, working at a campground, harvesting potatoes. McDormand and the real-life actors with whom she mingles throughout the film drift from one season to the next, from one short-term employment to another. Without much excitement linking events together, Zhao does though deliver a living poem about what a transient, unrooted life of survival looks like. I live in a region where foreign temporary workers come to work here on a seasonal basis every year, yet I know nothing of their lives.

NOMADLAND brings up a lot for the audience to unpack. The film prefaces the film with a mention of the 2011 closure of the Empire, Nevada gypsum mine. The event led to the unemployment of a huge workforce and the literal evisceration of the entire town. This is the capitalist system on display, and it clearly communicates reveals that there are folks on the fringe of capitalism that do not reap the rewards. In NOMADLAND, capitalism quite literally obliterates community and strands the people who built it. For Empire, Nevada there was no greater community or government help. Deep, down, NOMADLAND speaks to the heartlessness of a system that consumes resources and people. To McDormand and her nomadic buddies, "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" is not just a means to survival, it is practically spiritual. The irony in the title--nomads are folks with no land--is more layered than that as the lifestyle of being a nomad requires a connection to the land.

The power of NOMADLAND lies in its slow connection between audience and McDormand's houseless character. There is a realism to her performance and to Zhao's world-building that is both fascinating and stirring. And it's a documentary type of realism to this world.
There are people out there on the fringe. 'Not homeless: houseless' as McDormand states. As we get to know of some of McDormand's personal struggles--Zhao never really explains many of them; she lets us figure McDormand out slowly--our initial reaction of pity fades away. Zhao's thesis is that some people belong on the road. I'm not sure if I agree with it myself, but NOMADLAND is a beautiful anecdote that supports the notion. McDormand's brilliant and beautiful performance slowly reveals her journey; educates us about the lifestyles of transient, seasonal workers; and validates the values of living off the land in a modern age.

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