Empire, Nevada, has crumbled. Following the total economic collapse of her small mining town, Fern (Frances McDormand) hits the road, abandoning her longtime home and all tethers to family and the familiar.
In Nomadland, written, directed, and edited by Chloé Zhao, Fern’s journey moves us to take a searing look at today’s economic landscape and the plight of the working class. Where Empire has become a ghost town, another empire has risen to take its place: corporate America and giants like Amazon, where Fern is employed as a seasonal worker. She ships boxes in a plant around Christmas before she moves on to the next gig, living out of a painstakingly restored van. She says Empire’s entire zip code has been “discontinued,” as if it were simply a product that was replaced with the latest model. Fern is not alone in her restlessness and excavation in the wake of the Great Recession: there are countless other nomads like her who live on the road and go wherever the work is.
Zhao adapted the screenplay from Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, a study of migrant workers and “workhampers” who travel between seasonal jobs often camping out in vans. While the film is anchored by a luminous performance from McDormand, who disappears naturally into her role, most of the nomads are non-actors playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells serve as mentors to Fern and lend a sense of tender authenticity to every tidbit of wisdom they impart; Bob makes videos on van dwelling and opposing the “workhorse” mentality the contemporary economy proselytizes, and Fern joins a community who grapple with economic and familial turmoil but find healing in appreciating the transience of life.
Zhao’s approach maintains an almost sociological distance as we meet nomads from all walks of life and see their struggles in unflinching realism. Ludovico Einaudi’s New Age twinged score is one of the few additions that remind us we are not watching real life. At other times, the film becomes deeply personal and raw, looking at Fern with profound empathy as she shelters herself from the cold or celebrates the New Year alone. Fern has painstakingly pieced-together and customized her falling-apart van, which she has, with her bleak sense of humor, named “Vanguard.” She has invested everything she has into the van, every dollar, possession, and memory, and carries it all with her wherever she goes.
In the many moments of wordless labor or quiet contemplation, McDormand imbues Fern with defiance and a lack of self-consciousness even as she remains closed off to most of the people around her. Fern meets Dave (David Strathairn, one of the film’s few other professional actors), a warm fellow nomad who works a restaurant job with her. The easygoing chemistry between the pair is palpable, and Dave offers her a chance at companionship and a more traditionally rooted life with his son and family, but she bristles at his affection. While it can be heartbreaking to watch her go it alone, Zhao presents her protagonist and her choices without judgment, and the narrative proceeds gently without big reveals or flashes that would strike us as false. Fern is stubborn and strong-willed and finds strange stability and comfort in impermanence.
Though set in 2011-2012, it feels extra timely given how RV sales hit record highs in the era of coronavirus; but do not expect that Nomadland will fulfill any dreamy wish of wanderlust or escapism. While the cinematography from Joshua James Richards features breathtaking vistas of the natural landscapes of the American countryside, the narrative shows plenty of the gritty realities of transient life and how downtrodden some nomads can feel. The West may have stunning sights and the shimmering promise of a romantic American dream, but it still has relatively bleak prospects for workers, as Fern takes jobs cooking in roadside joints, scrubbing toilets, and must learn to “deal with her shit” (both literal and metaphorical).
Memory and recognition of the dead are recurring themes that run throughout, as Nomadland spends a surprising amount of time on the subject of death. Fern struggles with how to properly honor her late husband, Bo, after she leaves Empire — and makes it seem like he ever existed — but she runs the risk of feeling like she never existed herself if she spends all her time remembering rather than living. Zhao offers a meditative look at lives in the margins, honoring impermanence rather than fleeing from it. Eventually, everyone moves on, as one must when it comes to life.
Zhao’s powerfully poetic drama cements her as a groundbreaking talent, shaking the earth with her work’s hushed intensity. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” Fern says to those who inquire. The word “utopia” translates to “no-place,” and the hopes of the mythic American west or promise of a perfect society fade like the haze over the mountains — though there is still something breathtakingly beautiful about the views from the road. There is no place like home, but maybe home is no place at all.