Dir: Chloé Zhao. Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells, Linda May, Swankie. Cert 12A, 108 mins
Nomadland is so unlike the Best Pictures we’re accustomed to. It’s quiet, where others have been boastful. It prefers simple looks or words to monologues. Where transformation does occur, it’s internal and not through some parade of wigs and prosthetics. With her third film, Chloé Zhao has established herself as one of our greatest practitioners of docufiction – she finds the cinematic that exists already within everyday life, rather than transforming the everyday until she deems it worthy of her camera.
And so, Nomadland sings. It’s a beautiful film that doesn’t toy with the pain of its subjects – older Americans who’ve adopted a transient lifestyle, living in campervans and trailers while they search for seasonal work. Instead, Zhao wraps this world around her audience like it’s a blanket, welcoming them through the familiar features of its A-list star, Frances McDormand (who won the Best Actress Oscar last weekend for her performance).
In Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), Zhao relied on non-professional actors playing semi-fictionalised versions of themselves. Here, reality and illusion are drawn even closer together. There’s a generous helping of McDormand in the character of Fern – the mischief in her eyes, and a kindness that feels all the more charming for how undecorated it is.
Many of those around her, however, are real-life nomads. Some – like Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells – were featured in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which Zhao uses as a roadmap for her film. The stories they tell draw from their own experiences; even Fern’s backstory ties to the real-life closure of the Gypsum factory in Empire, Nevada, leading to the abandonment of both its town and zip code.
Whatever their reason for taking to the road, these are all people whose minds and bodies no longer have much value under capitalism – they have no choice but to be exposed to the exploitative structures of seasonal work. Amazon warehouses, campgrounds, and industrial sites will welcome a few weeks’ labour, before spitting them back out into the world without a shred of support.
The comfortable familiarity of McDormand, coupled with a performance that feels both grounded and highly specific, is bound to remind audiences of someone they know – a neighbour, a relative, a friend, or anyone who carries an outward concern for others but refuses to share their own vulnerabilities. And so Nomadland draws attention to how widespread this kind of economic instability is, in the US or abroad, and how so many are one unlucky day away from Fern’s reality.
But Zhao, in her acceptance speech for Best Director, picked out a phrase from the Chinese text the Three Character Classic: “People, at birth, are inherently good.” Nomadland’s own fragile, humanist beauty lies in her steadfast belief that community can be a balm for all ills. And, as Bob Wells preaches, it remains the greatest resistance against “the tyranny of the dollar”. His real-life, yearly event The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous becomes a centre for Zhao’s film – a place where nomads can gather, trade, socialise, and establish a culture that values freedom above all, even in the midst of great sacrifice and loss.
When Fern is offered the chance to settle – either with a sister (Melissa Smith) or a potential romantic partner (David Strathairn) – it’s not something she runs to with open arms. Her new life has allowed her to be the carrier of histories and traditions, of loved ones lost and of nature at its most miraculous. Zhao’s long-time cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures this symbolic existence with a loving touch. The camera takes great interest in the way Fern’s refashioned her late husband’s fishing box as a kitchen cupboard. It watches on with reverence as she marches through the desert, with only a solitary lamp to guide her way through the pink-purple sunset.
Fern’s sister, as an act of charity, compares her life to that of the American pioneers. She’s not quite right. They were in search of the idea of America; Fern looks for a way to escape it.
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