‘Nomadland’ review: Frances McDormand shines in emotional wallop of a movie

WATCH: 'Nomadland' trailer

In a world that currently feels very, very small, Nomadland opens the doors to a rushing expanse, a wide, uncontained horizon. While it would be incorrect to describe the movie as a happy one, it does possess a strange joy, and a freedom that the majority of humanity hasn’t been able to savour for more than a year.

Starring the stellar Frances McDormand as the wayward Fern, Nomadland follows her journey as she tries to put her life back together after the death of her husband and the shuttering of her small town.

Left literally without a zip code, Fern is lost with no rudder to guide her. As a woman heading toward late-middle-age, job prospects are scarce and/or non-existent, so she packs up a van with her life and moves on. And on and on, meeting new people and seeing remarkable vistas, sunsets, sunrises, shores and mountains — on her terms.

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That’s it? That’s what the movie’s about?

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but Fern moves as much psychologically as she does physically. While she’s going from state to state, she’s also emerging into her true self, someone who’s been buried in grief and sadness for too long. There’s something very moving about the whole journey, even if you have nothing in common with Fern or her suffering; as she meets people along the way, we learn about their lives and their own personal triumphs and failures, to great effect. Every time Fern looks into a setting sun and releases a long exhale, there’s a catharsis.

How is McDormand as Fern?

Frances McDormand in ‘Nomadland.’. Joshua James Richards/Searchlight Pictures

Guaranteed Best Actress Oscar winner right here. No question about it. McDormand absolutely absorbs herself into whatever role she’s in, and whether she needs to express pathos or happiness or desperation, she does it with a mere glance. The character is at once a tough husk but also a warm, lovable mama bear. Within minutes of meeting her, you already care about her and fidget on tenterhooks to see if she makes it through.

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Excellent, well-formed side characters come into her life as quickly as they leave, and each provides a foil for Fern to see herself. The movie, though fictional, is based on the 2017 book of the same name, which is composed of several true stories.

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How about the movie itself?

Aside from being an ad for RVs and taking a trip across the continental United States, the movie is a work of art. The U.S. itself is a supporting character, with its stunning landscapes and what seems like endless land stretching as far as the eye can see. Director Chloé Zhao, who will (most likely) take home the Best Director Oscar, captures Fern’s ache in conjunction with the wide expanse of her country. There is freedom all around us, so why do we feel so trapped? Fern is forever searching for the answer, but ironically, with so much room to move, she keeps treading the same old ground.

COVID-19 has isolated us and confined the majority of us indoors. Watching Nomadland, never has our planet seemed so vast — full of places to see and things to touch and do and experience. The desire to travel and to leave it all behind practically formed a taste in my mouth as I watched Fern drive along the California coast or take in another desert sunset, or stand near to pounding surf, letting the spray hit her face. Granted, Fern’s life is hardly luxurious, but there’s a richness to being free of the rigours of daily life.

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So what’s the bottom line?

A visual feast, albeit a depressing one, Nomadland is a fitting movie for the pandemic we’re all living through. In Fern’s sadness and waywardness, there’s a simple joy: embrace what you have, appreciate those you love and who love you, because our time together on this planet is a blip, and some lives are over before we’ve even started living.

‘Nomadland’ will screen in Canada theatrically and on Star via Disney+ on April 9.

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