Nomadland is the kind of movie that could go very wrong. With Frances McDormand as its star alongside a cast of real-life nomads, in lesser hands it might’ve looked like cheap wish fulfillment or showboating at its most gratuitous. Instead, writer-director Chloé Zhao works magic with McDormand’s face and the real world around it, delivering a profound rumination on wanderlust. Zhao has made her young, auspicious career on investigating the ignored pockets and marginalized subcultures of this sprawling nation. Her last film, The Rider, cast rodeo cowboys in South Dakota as lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, acting out a scripted but largely un-sensationalized drama built from details of their real biographies. There’s an element of that, too, in Nomadland, which Zhao adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book about older Americans who have adopted a traveling way of life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, moving around the country in campers and vans in search of employment. Several of the subjects in the book appear as themselves in the movie, which confers an authenticity, as opposed to a tourist’s exoticism, to Zhao’s depiction of their world.
Our entryway is the entirely fictional Fern (McDormand), a widow living in economically decimated Nevada. Fern, who’s lost her husband to cancer and the roof over her head to the recession, lives in a van (“I’m houseless, not homeless,” she insists), and works seasonally at an Amazon shipping facility. But once the holidays are over, the job opportunities in her ghost town dry up, and Fern hits the road, chasing work and better weather from one encampment of fellow nomads to the next. As this flinty, self-sufficient, and geographically unmoored woman, McDormand provides a blend of toughness and vulnerability that’s a perfect fit for the material. Fern doesn’t pity herself, and how could we? She’s played by Frances McDormand! If this isn’t necessarily the star’s best performance, it’s, at the least, certainly one of the smartest deployments of that unstudied quality she’s brought to numerous Middle American heroines; she blends seamlessly into an ensemble of unknowns and nonprofessionals. The movie doesn’t impose contrivances onto Fern’s journey; there’s a whisper of a potential romance with a fellow nomad (David Strathairn, the only other professional actor in the movie), but it doesn’t play out in the easy, expected way. Zhao, a neorealist in the best sense, seems to understand that artificial plot developments might betray the truth of the milieu she’s been welcomed into as a storyteller. And that absence of a dramatic blueprint proves to be quite liberating.
Zhao, who made Nomadland before feeding herself into the Marvel world (her film, The Eternals, was supposed to open this fall, before the pandemic chased it off the calendar), has made a major leap forward. She directs with a graceful economy, a Terrence Malick-esque lyrical flow from scene to scene — and town to town, and week to week — that mimics the transient nature of Fern’s lifestyle. Zhao juggles a complex tone: she savors the mythic beauty of the changing landscapes and seasons, finding in them an expression of both the loneliness and freedom of a life on the road, while acknowledging the wistful undercurrents of the people wandering through it. The movie operates kind of as a non-narrative character study, while still having many more textured moments that could work just as well as a multiscreen museum installation. Ludovico Einaudi’s swooning, mournful score drifts in and out as cinematographer Joshua James Richards follows Fern through expansive outdoor scenery as the emptiness takes on poetic ramifications. Eventually, a melancholy overtakes the picture like clouds rolling in across its vast stretches of sky, and it feels like both a force of natural, of weather and an expression of the feelings Fern never entirely articulates. For as much as Nomadland resists heavy-handed revelations and any kind of condescension towards Fern, it keeps us hanging on the character’s emotional guardedness, and on what it might say about her embrace of solitude and reinvention.
Zhao understands that this way of life is a choice for some and a necessity for others. Sometimes, it becomes both, as people discover their own way to being able to pick up and go, untethered to a place. The filmmaker doesn’t quite romanticize the migratory way, but she does seem to selectively privilege its wisest salt-of-the-Earth proponents. The only characters in this movie that even mildly flirt with unflattering behavior or ugly traits are Fern’s relatives, who condescend her choices. There are no hints, either, of our political present — remove the fleeting glimpses inside the Amazon machine, and this film could conceivably be set anytime over the past thirty or forty years. Then again, we’re mostly seeing characters who live outside the parameters of mainstream American life. So maybe the total absence of current culture is realistic.
Just a few weeks ago, Nomadland took home the top prize (the golden lion) at the Venice Film Festival. And, in some ways, it’s kind of fascinating to see Nomadland win the award one year after Joker. Both films, in their own very different ways, attempt to get at something essential about the American character — and also at the way that American institutions fail our most vulnerable. (Perhaps it goes without saying that the conclusions drawn this time are a bit less pessimistic and a lot less apocalyptic.) But Nomadland is no screed. Zhao remains an observer, not a soap box polemicist; she weaves her political conscience into the fabric of her environmental portraits, allowing larger points to reveal themselves organically. That puts her work in conversation with filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, revealing truths about America by narrowing in close to its margins, and those etching out an existence there, one day and gig at a time, or passing across them like a rolling stone. At one point, a fellow nomad tells Fern that he never says goodbye to his nomadic peers, only “See you down the road.” Anyone waiting for a big revelatory moment won’t find one in Nomadland: As Fern drives on, the movie embodies that line as a mission statement, and finds all the power that lives in it. A melancholic, lyrical meditation on the American outskirts, Nomadland is an economic tale of deeply-felt contemplation and empathy; rich with profound feeling and abundant in dreamy poetry.
Nomadland screened at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release the film theatrically on December 4