Nomadland, rated R
This film recently won Golden Globe awards for Best Motion Picture Drama and Chloé Zhao (The Rider), won for Best Director-Motion Picture. The film features an outstanding performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Fargo). The film also features some wonderful cinematography, with multiple landscape scenes of the American West by Joshua James Richards (The Rider), and a memorable musical score by Ludovico Einaudi.
The film is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. Many of the characters in the film are non-actors who live on the road. Some of those who are in the book show up in the film as well, playing themselves.
We learn that the USG sheetrock plant in Empire, Nevada went out of business in early 2011, after 88 years. At the time, USG employed about 100 of the 300 residents of Empire. In a scene late in the film, Fern returns to Empire, walking through her former home and the abandoned plant. Within seven months of the plant closing, the town had lost its zip code. Both Fern (Frances McDormand, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for her performance), and her husband, who died of cancer, had worked at the plant. Fern has now lost her home. The film begins and ends during the holidays, with Fern singing “What Child is This?” and wishing people a happy new year. Fern takes off in her van to work a temporary position at an Amazon plant. While there, Fern is living in her van, which she will do during the entire film. She prefers to refer to herself as “houseless”, rather than “homeless”. At Amazon, Fern meets the likeable ponytailed Linda May (who plays herself), who tells her of a community of older van-dwellers led by Bob Wells (who plays himself). Fern then heads to the Arizona community.
Just as Fern said goodbye to Empire with a hug to the owner of the storage facility in which she stored her belongings she couldn’t take in her van, she says goodbye (parting is a theme in the film), to those in the community as they drive away. She then gets in her van and continues her travels through the American West, meeting Dave, played by Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.) at a few stops along the way she meets the cancer-stricken Swankie, and a young man who she gives a cigarette to and helps him with how to write (via poetry) to his girlfriend up north. At each stop, she finds a job, always working hard.
Fern develops friendships along the way, but except for Linda May, she keeps them at a distance, including her sister, perhaps because she knows that she will soon be moving on. Maybe from a fear of getting hurt she doesn’t allow any depth in her relationships – she cares for other folks but keeps them at arm’s length.
Looking at the film from a Christian perspective, Fern has no purpose in life, she just survives another day, and then moves on to the next town. The film gives a sense of meaningless and a lack of hope as it follows Fern throughout a year on the road.
Themes in the film include friendships, loss, departing, wandering, sadness and hopelessness. Content concerns include one scene of female nudity in a non-sexual manner which is what gives the film its “R” rating, and a few mentions of suicide. There is minimal adult language.
While there are many aspects of this film to be admired – McDormand’s acting, the cinematography, musical score, and the characters Fern meets along the way, it’s a hard film to recommend because of its lack of hope, though the people that are profiled in the film do not seem to be unhappy with their lives, and perhaps that’s what is most concerning about Fern and the people we meet in the film. On a positive note, they all seem very generous with sharing their belongings and helping each other, which is a good model for all of us. They also show a good pattern of living a simple life, in the moment and enjoying God’s creation.