The third feature from Chloé Zhao is an achingly tender look at one woman's life on the road.
At the start of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a title card informs us that in 2011, after 88 years of operation, the United States Gypsum Corporation closed its plant in the small town of Empire, Nevada. The residents had to vacate their homes, which were owned by the company, and the local ZIP code was discontinued. It effectively became a ghost town. Drawing on the experiences detailed in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, Zhao chronicles a year in the life of one woman forced out of Empire as she seeks work in various far-flung locales across the United States.
In an encounter with a young girl she used to tutor, Fern (Frances McDormand) who is living in a beaten-up, “ratty” van, is asked by the concerned teenager if she’s homeless. She shakes her head defiantly and says, “I’m not homeless. I just don’t have a house. That’s different, isn’t it?” The girl doesn’t seem much convinced, but nods her head all the same, and bids Fern farewell. Fern goes back to her van, which contains a bed, a stove, a bucket, and the few meagre possessions she’s chosen to bring with her.
The van – christened Vanguard – is Fern’s refuge. Giving a friend a tour, she proudly explains how she’s modified it to provide more storage space, including using part of her late husband’s fishing box as a cupboard door which drops down to provide an extra kitchen counter. The loss of her spouse looms understandably large for Fern, and the first time we see her, rummaging through her storage container, she comes across a workshirt of his and pauses, visibly upset, before she hugs it close to her chest. But there’s no time to grieve in corporate America, and Fern hustles from job to job, pinballing from Christmas work at an Amazon distribution centre in Nevada to campground employment in the Badlands National Park and, later on, employment at the historic Wall Drug near Mount Rushmore.
These gigs change with the seasons, and Fern drives from state to state picking up temporary employment and trying to keep busy. She finds friends in a like-minded community who meet up in Arizona – all older Americans, living in their vehicles and formalising the nomad culture through fairs and gatherings. Some do it because they love the freedom it offers, others for financial reasons, but all share an understanding that the government isn’t going to look after them, so they have to look after one another. They recommend campsites and places to work, and gift each other unwanted possessions. Despite the obvious hardship and grief that blights many of them, they possess awe-inspiring resilience and determination to live life on their own terms.
Alongside the real-life nomads who play her friends and colleagues, McDormand slips in seamlessly. Fern is a stoic, resourceful protagonist, but not without vulnerability, which we glimpse in breathtaking moments where she allows herself to let her guard down. We see Fern when she’s sick, Fern when she’s upset, Fern when she’s happy – and McDormand, who won her second Best Actress Oscar in 2018 for her incandescent performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, proves there is no end to her talent or versatility. It’s an understated performance of the utmost tenderness and care.
Her co-stars are equally valuable, and Zhao’s gift as a storyteller is rooted in how deeply she makes us care for each and every character she places in the frame. From the curmudgeonly Swankie to the kindly David (David Strathairn), who takes a shine to Fern, each is worthy of a feature film in their own right, but we’re grateful to just catch a snippet of their life as Fern continues on down her own road.
Despite the backdrop of financial uncertainty and the ruins of the American Dream promised then reneged upon to countless generations of blue-collar workers, Nomadland is a compassionate, people-focused story. Its political implications are fascinating and will undoubtedly spark conversations between audiences as to their meanings. To give just one example, it’s interesting to note that the town of Empire sits on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, most famous for the annual Burning Man Festival; formerly a celebration of counterculture, now a place for celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Heidi Klum to be seen prancing around in their finery.
But Zhao doesn’t appear interested in creating didactic art which tells us how to feel or what to believe. In her previous two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, she explores trauma and recovery, plus the burning desire to escape unfortunate circumstances. Nomadland feels like a continuation of these interests. All three of her feature films feel so open to interpretation, but also encourage the viewer to consider the relationship between humans and nature, and to bask in the great untouched beauty that still remains beyond the cityscapes of modern America.
Working with her regular cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao creates stunning images of the American wilderness, framing it as something both terrifying and awe-striking. One shot of McDormand sitting amid a giant stack of freshly-harvested potatoes shows us how small we are in the context of wider society. Another, of her in a dimly-lit bathroom with dozens of moths fluttering around, evokes a sense of industrialisation encroaching on nature.
Nomadland might recall the work of Terrance Malick and Kelly Reichardt, but Zhao is not “the next” anyone – she’s the first Chloé Zhao, and to speak of a filmmaker only in terms of what came before is to do them a disservice. Zhao’s talent for capturing the fringes of modern America without any hint of melodrama or voyeurism belies a deep trust between storyteller and subject, and it’s thrilling to see her evolve with each new project. All this to say: the melancholy lyricism of Nomadland is something truly special, and this quiet marvel of a film deserves your attention.
Published 11 Sep 2020
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