Golden Globe winner Nomadland is a lonely, beautiful journey

Streamer: Australian cinema from March 4

Length: 108 minutes

Score: 3.5/5

When you’re a kid growing up in Australia, America takes on an almost mythic quality. After all, the US is where movies are made, where everyone wants to go to make it big. Put simply: it’s the place where dreams can come true.

As you get older, and occasionally wiser, you begin to realise the “American Dream” is very often more sizzle than steak. A fact that has become abundantly clear in the last couple of years watching America’s staggering mishandling of COVID-19 and that whole armed insurrection caper.

Frances McDormand as Fern in the desert in Nomadland
In Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand) explores a reality that is both bleak and beautiful. Picture: 20th Century Studios.

A film like Nomadland — which recently scooped two Golden Globe awards — pairs perfectly with these revelations, offering a sobering yet gentle portrait of what life can be like in America if you’re not lucky enough to be young, beautiful or rich.

Nomadland tells the lowkey story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a 61-year-old widow who loses her job after a US Gypsum plant shuts down in her town of Empire, Nevada. The plant supported the entirety of Empire and the town begins to die.

Fern sells most of her belongings and hits the road in her van, travelling around, looking for work. After spending a bitter winter at an Amazon fulfilment centre, Fern follows a tip from her friend Linda (Linda May) and joins a desert rendezvous in Arizona, where Bob (Bob Wells) encourages and supports those desiring a nomadic life.


Frances McDormand as Fern and David Strathairn as David in a scene Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) and David (David Strathairn) reckon the service at this restaurant is terrible but the view is to die for. Picture: 20th Century Studios.

And so it goes. Fern travels from place to place, takes jobs where she can and lives simply, sleeping in her van and always on the move. Never staying for long and never committing to any one group of people.

It’s a strange, quiet drama that Nomadland describes, a life of great beauty but also great loneliness. Where you can regularly watch the sunrise through your own windscreen but also have to poop in a bucket.

Frances McDormand is, as always, extraordinary, giving a totally believable performance as a downbeat but determined woman living her life as she truly wishes. Always welcome David Strathairn (playing potential romantic interest David) also does lovely work, understated and precise.

Extraordinarily, many of the supporting cast — including Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells — are all real-life nomads, playing slightly altered versions of themselves, which is a fascinating way to blur the lines between artifice and reality.

Frances McDormand as Fern in the forest in Nomadland
Nomadland finds peace and beauty in the quiet moments and is all the more effective for it. Picture: 20th Century Studios

Director Chloé Zhao — who won Best Director at the Globes — seems to have little interest in making Nomadland a shouty screed against capitalism, or even a celebration of the nomad lifestyle. She’s here to tell a small story about little lives in a meditative, deliberately-paced way.

And look, the slow pace, the mumbly dialogue, the frequent bleakness all combine to create a film that will definitely not be for everyone. If you come to Nomadland expecting crowd-pleasing work in line with some of McDormand’s other gear like Fargo (1996) or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) you’ll probably be disappointed.

If, however, you’re willing to tune into Nomadland’s minimalist rhythms, you’ll be rewarded with a rich slice of human drama, and a lowkey examination of a lifestyle that exists in the shadows of a society just now waking up from the American dream and facing a much less glamorous American reality.

Side note: director Chloé Zhao’s next film is the big-budget Marvel extravaganza The Eternals if you can believe it. Will we get scenes of Harry Styles pooping in a bucket? You’ll have to wait until November to find out.

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