Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020)
Some people have a real sense of belonging on the road, where home is not a structure but a distinct feeling that carries them through the open skies with nothing in front of them. Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is a true nomad deep inside. She belongs on the road. She seems at home there, acting as a voluntary guide for the landscape. She chooses to be here. She takes jobs here and there, always on her own accord. McDormand works her magic in collaboration with the phenomenal Chloé Zhao, who directed, co-wrote, and edited Nomadland.
Nomadland is a beautiful gem that got under my skin within minutes. Chloé Zhao explores a nomad character study and the cycle of human life in a gorgeous, natural landscape that sets the story like poetry. Zhao stirringly captures feelings of rootlessness and togetherness within the margins of society, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The story is about the power of self-sufficiency, unshared excitement, and lonely aching of someone in a constant state of not knowing what’s around the corner.
Frances McDormand is magic. It is a testament to her talent (combined with Zhao’s direction) that after 30+ years in this business, filled with wonderful performances, she delivers the best work of her career as Fern. This character lost the life she knew. She came from a town, in which she and her husband lived for many years, shuttered by the Great Recession. The journey of Nomadland follows Fern as she finds out where she fits in this world. Her self-sufficiency is tested, but there is also an excitement by the possibilities of seeing what’s down the road for her.
Zhao was able to build on McDormand’s skills as an actor audiences have come to know and love over the years. McDormand uses the baseline of Fern as a trampoline into every situation she encounters. She delivers an absolutely magnificent performance full of subtle nuances, powerful stoicism, and surprises. Fern shares many encounters with characters she meets on the road. The majority of these characters are real-life nomads - namely Linda May, Bob Wells, and Charlene Swankie - with whom Fern forms close bonds. When each of them share their own stories with her, it is beyond moving to watch.
There is something about nature being in its element for a long time, and it still being there when you return to it, that is both haunting and moving. The feeling of being in nature can be humbling and relaxing, followed by a restlessness that rushes in when you leave such a setting. Zhao captures this feeling so brilliantly, like a moving poem. It’s infused in all the characters, brought together through journeying into the open road.