‘Nomadland’: A home is not a house

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Last February, the Chloé Zhao-directed film “Nomadland” was released in the United States. Even though the film stars the highly accoladed and very recognizable Frances McDormand of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and “Fargo,” her star does not outshine the twinkling of “Nomadland’s” scenic night skies. The film’s sky serves as the protagonist’s only permanent ceiling after she adopts a nomadic lifestyle. Though the movie struggles with a plot that is more boring than richly rewarding, “Nomadland’s” gift is that it has no gifts to possess or bequeath. It finds its wealth in showing a home is not a house; home is humanity. 

After losing not only her job in the wake of the Great Recession, but also her deceased husband, “Nomadland’s” protagonist, Fern (McDormand), relinquishes both her house and her belongings. These aforementioned possessions bound her to her city of Empire, Nevada – an empire the Recession revealed to be a pipe dream as chimeric as the American Dream that spurned it. Without her previous trappings weighing her down, Fern is free to explore the American West. 

Even as Fern drives throughout the American West, she sits passenger seat to the dialogue and performances that drive the film. “Nomadland” satisfies not through its action (or lack thereof), but through the gradual, unhastened unraveling of the film’s concomitant themes of grief and loss by the storytelling of the film’s characters. Many of the nomads of whom Fern converses with in her travels are, like her, grieving the losses of not only their finances, but also their loved ones. 

The character Bob Wells, a fictionalized version of the actor that portrays him, states of his liberation through nomad life after struggling with the chains of his son’s suicide:  

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye … I’ve met hundreds of people out here who don’t ever say a final goodbye … It’s just, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. Whether it’s a month, or a year, or sometimes years, I see them again. I can look down the road and be certain in my heart that I’ll see my son again.”

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye … I’ve met hundreds of people out here who don’t ever say a final goodbye … It’s just, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. Whether it’s a month, or a year, or sometimes years, I see them again. I can look down the road and be certain in my heart that I’ll see my son again.” 

The friendly bonds that Fern and the other nomads are able to secure are those that come without the debt of commitment; they are more secure than any bonds money could afford. The repetition of the word “houselessness” rather than “homelessness” is central to the film’s decrying of the material in celebration of the immateriality of friendship. “Nomadland’s” naturalistic dialogue paired with its smooth character-tracking shots create a humanistic atmosphere much like that of a warm hug that calms the frontier’s cold nights. 

The dazzling, climactic plot events that so often weigh down other films are also relinquished by “Nomadland’s” narrative. However, the flagrant absence of any cogent character or plot development weakens any significant weight the film could impart. For example, “Nomadland’s” most pivotal moments are delegated to that of dialogue, rather than active cinematic portrayal. The failure to appeal to this action leads to a lack of drama and tension that even the most art film seasoned audiences may find dull. Additionally, and in disrespect to its release in an era that associates social stratification with the likes of Jeff Bezos, Fern’s praise of her Amazon job early in the story puts the film’s credibility regarding class into question. As a result, “Nomadland” feels less like a film, and more like footage. 

Regardless of whether or not you need a strong cup of coffee to slough through “Nomadland”, what footage it has to reel is teeming with valuable meaning that makes its watch worthwhile. 

Rating: 3/5 

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