Chloé Zhao’s majestic film Nomadland is an epic and gentle lament for a vanishing America. By Debbie Zhou.


Frances McDormand plays Fern, a nomadic worker living in her campervan.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a nomadic worker living in her campervan.
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland finds peace in the process of letting go. In this meditative road movie, set in the open landscapes of the American west, the devastating ramifications of the 2008 Great Recession arrive on home ground, on the hard tarmac and the dust of the desert sand. Chronicling a disappearing way of life – once celebrated as the American dream – could easily land with tragedy, but in this film it’s captured as a gentle lament.

Nomadland is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, which explored the invisible casualties of American’s post-global financial crisis workforce economy. The film melds fiction with documentary seamlessly, crafting a drama that features actors alongside real-life “nomads” who are playing fictionalised versions of themselves.

The film is largely set in 2012, a year after US Gypsum closed its mining plant in Empire, Nevada, which resulted in the disappearance of the area’s zipcode. The film begins as Fern (Frances McDormand) abandons her home in the town that was home to generations of gypsum miners, but then was obliterated by the Great Recession. She opens up a storage garage, packing as many items as she can squeeze into the back of her campervan. She considers a jacket, hugs it, but leaves it behind. Then she’s in the driver’s seat singing “Greensleeves”, then pissing on the side of the road.

This is the beginning of a quiet, solitary voyage – part of the phenomenon of older middle-class Americans travelling around the country in search of employment, living in their RVs and vans and ending up in low-paid, temporary job pools. “I’m not homeless, I’m just – not the same thing, right?” Fern asks softly when, in an early scene, she bumps into a family she knows at a homewares store.

Unable to afford an early retirement, Fern’s first destination is an Amazon distribution warehouse, where she works during Christmas as part of CamperForce, which is the company’s program for nomadic and seasonal workers. Parked in the next-door campground, there’s little pretension in the life inside Fern’s modified van. Fitted and repaired as a home – down to an old fishing box, or a plastic bucket as a makeshift toilet – the vehicle becomes part of her journey.

The winner of two of 2020’s top film honours – the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival – Nomadland features a minimalist storyline and understated performances that are a far cry from the usual flashy frontrunners hyped for Best Picture at the Oscars. But Zhao’s sweeping ode to a forgotten America captures a universal poignancy that holds true in a waning, uncertain world, from which former markers of stability – a home and a nine-to-five job – have been removed.

In telling its characters’ hardships, the film steers clear of predictable sentiment while leaving room for sweetness and wit. Fern’s introspective resilience brings a tinge of melancholy, as she holds her past painfully inside. The film’s emotional weight is located in weary expressions or small gestures. It shows us the everyday, in-between moments, drawing us into Fern’s cramped space where she folds her underwear, tries to find the signal on the radio, or reaches, shivering, for another blanket in the middle of a cold night.

Zhao – who wrote, directed and edited the film – keeps criticisms of poverty porn at bay by crafting her scenes with delicate nuance. She portrays Fern’s story as part of a larger structural social dysfunction, following her as she skips between odd jobs at a campground and burger place in South Dakota, or a beetroot harvesting site in Nebraska.

There are echoes of Zhao’s Cannes-award-winning sophomore feature, The Rider (2018) in Nomadland’s protagonist – both characters are forced to adapt to difficult, life-altering events, with potentially debilitating effects. In the earlier film, Brady, a rodeo rider, sustains a head injury, and faces a lost future in which he is unable to ride again; in Nomadland, Fern must move on from the future she imagined and the life she had built with her late husband, Bo.

Here, off-the-grid living implies a lonely existence, but Zhao evokes the brief joys and wonders of connecting with a community of like-minded wanderers, and the grandeur of the natural world they encounter.

Fern joins a yearly desert rendezvous of nomads in Quartzside, Arizona, organised by philosophical van dweller Bob Wells, who, after making a speech about accepting the “tyranny of the dollar”, leads a collective exchange of on-the-road lore. The generosity and care, however transient, is profound, simple and warm: the act of giving a haircut, helping to change a tyre, offering a cigarette. Moving isn’t merely a survival tactic: it becomes a way of life.

The film’s docu-fiction style – seen in Zhao’s previous works, including her debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) – brings a lived authenticity to the stories it tells. These stories are so palpable and detailed they could hardly be pulled from fiction. Two women Fern encounters, Linda May and Swankie are both interview subjects of Bruder’s book, and play themselves in the film. They lay bare their circumstances in sincere conversations; a scene where Swankie recalls a moment of utter content – of her rafting on water, surrounded by hundreds of swallows and nests on a cliff wall – is so powerfully evoked that its delivery haunts through to the film’s final act.

McDormand’s screen presence is stripped of actorly show: as Fern, she radiates a charming, free-spirited personality that’s richly extraordinary in her big-hearted, honest plainness. We see her happily scampering over rock formations, and understand her restlessness when she’s enclosed in a house with four walls. It’s a pared-back, thoughtful performance that means Fern enraptures us with her crooked smile, quiet independence and easy companionship. “When you’re old, you have personality,” Linda tells Fern when they work together at the Badlands National Park, in a sequence where they put on face masks during a “Spa Day” then yell cheerfully at the sky while driving their golf buggy: “We’re the fucking Badland bitches!”

Nomadland addresses the pain of losing everything, and what it means to rebuild oneself in a changing world. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards, shooting in the magical hours of sunrise and sunset, finds Terrence Malick-inspired close-ups and lyrical tracking shots. But the film’s romanticism is restrained, and the camera, as well as the loose narrative, is primarily focused on its empathetic treatment of its characters.

Fern’s close friendship with fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn), presents one of several choices that offer her an escape for a more conventionally comfortable lifestyle. When she refuses, we understand that the only saviour she’ll permit is herself. In this sacred space, there’s no need to rely on or burden others.

Notions of isolation and loneliness are given new meaning, and new freedoms are discovered by embracing them. Montages of Fern immersing herself in nature, accompanied by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi’s piano and strings soundscape, highlight the tranquillity Fern feels as she presses her fingertips to the trunk of a tall tree in a forest; we feel her elation as she floats naked in a river, or as the wind and rain whip her face as she stands on a cliff, facing outward to wild, crashing waves.

These moments permit Nomadland to be simultaneously epic and intimate. It’s a lament, a paean to a uniquely contemporary grief, that uncovers moments of respite and hope – even when the fortitude of moving on means driving onto an open-ended road to nowhere. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 27, 2021 as "Road to nowhere".

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Debbie Zhou is an arts and culture critic based in Sydney.

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