Travelin’ Through: Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland”
When Frances McDormand’s Fern appears in the opening frames of Nomadland (2020), a title card has already explained the broad strokes of her backstory up until that point. She used to live and work in Empire, Nevada, a small mining town economically viable purely on account of the plant that produced gypsum. When the plant shuttered, another fallout of the 2008 economic crisis, the town’s zip code was discontinued. Widowed and without any other particularly secure connection to the place, Fern packs all her valuables into a van and hits the road, exploring a life free of conventions as a nomad.
Not only did Chloé Zhao direct and edit, but she also adapted Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, crafting an empathetic piece of cinema that achieves the fine distinction of blending fiction and non-fiction in a stunning, affecting whole.
McDormand, who also produced the film, with two Oscars already in her decorated career, is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, obviously. But it’s hard to tell from her performance as Fern; she disappears completely into the character’s loneliness and soulfulness. Eschewing showiness for lived-in resilience, McDormand has the grit and the necessary roughness to survive a life on the road. But she is also in tune with Zhao’s sensitive screenplay, digging into the often-clashing complexities that make Fern such a compelling screen presence.
It isn’t particularly clear what Fern is searching for, or if she is searching at all, but Zhao and her leading lady aren’t interested in telling a simple story of the character’s redemption. That would be a different film, a lesser one too. Zhao’s Nomadland is a poetic reflection on loneliness and economic collapse in today’s America, as observed by one ordinary individual.
Obstinate and awkward around intimacy, Fern is also totally self-assured and comfortable in her skin, satisfied with the life that she has carved out for herself. In tense scenes with her family members, McDormand gets at the heart of her character’s restlessness, asking not for pity but for respect and acceptance. On her own terms. She stresses in one scene that she is “houseless not homeless’’ after all.
Apart from McDormand and David Strathairn, who appears as a potential love interest for Fern, Nomadland is peopled with real nomads sharing their stories and acting out fictionalized versions of themselves. Established actors and non-actors alike blend seamlessly, falling in place with Zhao’s vision of telling a raw, aching story of the land and the people who walk or, in this case, drive through.
In this regard, Nomadland is as all-American as can be, albeit one with a range of emotions that transcend geography. After working with Zhao on previous titles, The Rider (2017) and Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), cinematographer Joshua James Richards returns to bring his illuminating wisdom to Nomadland.
Plenty of the frames are widescreen stunners, perhaps shot at the magic hour. Richards works with Zhao to capture both the external beauty of the Midwest and the internal spaces that the characters, particularly Fern, exist in. But these frames aren’t just beauty shots for the sake of the aesthetics. At the same time, the film feels plain and rugged, steeped in the tougher terrains that it navigates. Complimenting this is a heartwarming score by Ludovico Einaudi that blends in and stands out at the same time.
Nomadland’s plot is sparse and unhurried as Fern moves from one destination to the next. To keep body and soul together, Fern works seasonal jobs whenever she can find them. Along the way, she meets up and finds kin with several nomads who share her restless spirit. Some of Nomadland’s strongest bits are when these folks gather to share their stories of love won and lost, of courage, defeat, and defiance. During these moments, Fern appears alone but not lonely, as she shares a profound connection with her fellow travelers, getting as close to other people as she can possibly let herself be.
Nomadland has no business judging Fern or any of its characters and simply has them exist, free to make their own choices. If there is any critique at all, it’s for the capitalistic structure that makes people who should be settling into retirement have to work continuously to earn their keep. That a wealthy country like the United States has so many disaffected citizens living practically from hand to mouth seems as surprising as it is unfair. But even this rebuke is folded within the deliberate aura of grace that forms the building blocks of Zhao’s film.
The world may be a struggle, but the image of Fern’s van alone on the road, surrounded by vast, well-lit empty space, makes it clear that it’s no one’s home. We are all just traveling through.
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. The movie streams in virtual cinemas December 4.