Director Chloe Zhao is proving to be one of the great chroniclers of the American experience. The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me center her as an empathetic artist, interested in the silences of the land and the people, without either romanticizing suffering or condescending to her subjects. Nomadland, showing at the New York Film Festival, solidifies Zhao’s position as one of the foremost cinematic voices working today.
Frances McDormand is Fern, forced to leave her home in Empire, Nevada, after the death of her husband and the collapse of the sheetrock mining operation around which Empire was based. She takes to the road in her van, kitted out as a living space, finding work and companionship amid a group of itinerant workers and travelers as she makes her way across the Midwest and West.
What could have easily fallen into poverty porn or an elegiac tribute to the strength of the poor and destitute becomes, under Zhao’s direction and McDormand’s remarkable performance, a complex narrative of freedom, sacrifice, and resilience. Zhao does not treat the lives of Fern and her fellows as romantic nomads on an American odyssey; their lives are difficult and unfair, following seasonal work in massive Amazon warehouses, at campgrounds, in laundromats and tourist attractions. Fern freezes during the winter, has to learn to care for her van as a home, and faces the occasional confused looks and pity of others. But she also finds comradery, freedom, and beauty in the midst of an unforgiving economic and natural landscape. She both chooses this life and feels tied to it—she was happy in Empire, but the loss of her husband and then her town prompts her to make a choice more or less born of necessity.
This tension between choice and necessity is one of the most interesting aspects of Nomadland and in McDormand’s performance. Fern is a prickly, loving, kind, and acerbic person, at once unwilling to compromise in a life she has come to love within its hardships, and aware of how dangerous and difficult it is. It becomes evident that Fern does and doesn’t have a choice, both within her own character—the few times she sleeps in a house in a regular bed, she becomes uncomfortable and confined—and within the country that has forgotten her. She attempts to get a job via an unemployment office, but her age and previous experience mean they can’t find anything for her. She’s labeled unskilled, but has a multitude of skills. She wants to work, but is told that she can’t. Fern’s existence is the experience of many Americans in the aftermath of economic collapse; her frustrations are both intrinsic to her personality and born of a harsh reality.
Zhao’s camera captures the Midwestern landscape with as much passion and pathos as it does the characters themselves, transforming the Badlands into a terrifying labyrinth and a place to get happily lost, the windswept plains into a land of abundance and desolation. The sublimity of the landscape through which Fern travels forms a striking contrast to Fern’s visit to her sister, when she stays briefly in a comfortable suburban home, enclosed on all sides by mannered, subdued nature that she cannot stand. The film’s underlying critique is present here, too, as Fern confronts her brother-in-law who sells real estate and profited from the crisis that destroyed Fern’s town and livelihood.
Nomadland could have turned into many things—and under a less skilled director and writer, it would have. It is not a polemic against income inequality or a piece of poverty porn; it doesn’t judge its characters or their society explicitly, though there is certainly some implicit judgement inherent in a story about an economic reality that allows so many people to slip through the cracks. It does not romanticize Fern’s journey, but neither does it provide a socially and culturally acceptable arc in which she falls in love, buys a house, or gets a steady job. It depicts her life, the lives of her fellow travelers, and the American landscape itself, with understanding, with criticism, and with a deep, melancholic love. It’s a moving film without self-consciously playing on the heartstrings, and appeals to a sublime sensibility without making the viewer feel either detached from Fern or overly sympathetic towards her. We don’t cry for her, but we are moved by her. This is not the death of the American soul, but the resiliency of it, the inherent beauty and terror of a country that embraces community and yet preaches individuality.
Nomadland is perhaps one of the deftest works of cinema in recent years, transcendent simply by looking, unflinchingly, into the heart of the American character. It lets the characters, the landscape, and the images take the viewer where they need to go.