Breaking Bad

‘Nomadland’ bristles with a dark, gothic energy 

One night at a suburban backyard barbecue, Fern (Frances McDormand) bristles at a remark her brother-in-law makes. He’s a successful realtor discussing the housing market. Fern doesn’t make eye contact with anyone at the party when she speaks up to disagree with him. Her expression suggests she’s bitten her tongue in order to form her words with saliva and blood. Fern’s related to Mildred, the character McDormand played in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Both women are racked with sorrow. Mildred, though, responds to the injustices of her life with exhilarating and inexhaustible rage. In Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Fern is a withdrawn figure. Her widowhood is suffused with melancholy and nostalgia for the life she once shared with her husband. 

These quieter emotions stifle her anger. They rattle around in her brain, keeping her apart from an ordinary conversation about buying and selling houses. Zhao, who also adapted the screenplay from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, sets up many of the movie’s scenes like the one at the barbecue. A brief but awkward silence follows Fern’s trembling response before her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) stands up for her. The audience is prepared for a melodramatic confrontation. Instead, the director cuts away to an interior shot where Fern goes to retreat from the gathering. Nomadland is a consistent portrait of one woman’s internalized trauma.

Fern’s evasiveness and her diminished capacity for social interactions take on broader implications from the very first frame of the film. In quick succession, Fern has lost her husband, her job and her home. Adapting to these insurmountable losses, she starts living out of a van, taking odd jobs across the country. Traveling, for the most part, across desert landscapes, America has stranded Fern, and people like her, on a barren, dead-end road. The 20th century signposts that promised empowerment and fulfilled dreams have been replaced by dispiriting road markers that lead to impotence and futility.

Most of the work Fern finds is temporary or seasonal. One December, she finds a job at an Amazon warehouse, where she packages Christmas gifts. Zhao doesn’t film the interior through an inhumane lens, but under those bright fluorescent lights, Fern’s mundane routines—such as sealing cardboard boxes with tape—hit the audience in the gut. They remind us that there’s no safety net in this country. Those who haven’t adapted, or submitted, to the demands of the technocratic era, suffer an impaired ability to earn a living wage.

Zhao focuses on a group of individuals with marginalized lives whose stories remind us how close the rest of us are to those margins. If you listen closely to what they have to say, the distance between us isn’t that vast. Nomadland suggests that those of us with jobs and stable places to live might someday be in the same untenable position as Fern and her occasional companions.

Nomadland sometimes drifts away from Fern. The narrative expands to include other men and women who either work with her or who stay in the same campgrounds or RV lots. With the exception of David Strathairn as an ambivalent love interest, the other supporting characters aren’t, by and large, professional actors. When Fern interacts with them, they tell their stories in monologues that are, in this fictional world, meant for her ears. But their anecdotes are real, recited from their actual experiences. Including their voices often enhances and validates what Fern is going through, but their presence also alters the film, which becomes a hybrid between a documentary and a dramatic narrative.

Just as Fern’s hometown in Empire, Nevada disintegrates, so too, the movie implies, has the American empire. McDormand graces Fern’s emotional life with credible, resonant waves of grief and stubbornness. In Three Billboards, Mildred essentially breaks bad. Nomadland is an extended view of a woman doing everything she can to avoid breaking down in a country that already has.

“Nomadland” is now streaming on Hulu.
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