Director of The Rider and the upcoming Marvel tentpole Eternals (I am baffled, too) Chloe Zhao shines a light on some of the grimmer aspects of the United States’ ongoing economic desertification with her latest film. Nomadland inserts us into a growing subculture of modern day nomads, who drift from place to place in ramshackle RVs, picking up seasonal work where and when they can, telling their stories around communal campfires and trading their handcrafted knickknacks and tchotchkes for essential tools, supplies and information.
Our point of view character is Fern (Frances McDormand, Oscar-bound), houseless (but not homeless, as she emphasises at one point) after the gypsum plant in her town closed down and the whole community simply blew away like tumbleweeds. Widowed, she lives in a van, dubbed “Vanguard”, and we follow her as she immerses herself in this new lifestyle, first working in an Amazon fulfillment centre, then rambling across the American Southwest from place to place, gig to gig.
Tonally, this kind of narrative could be wholesome adventure or grim docudrama; Zhao splits the difference, never shying away from the rather grim realities of Fern’s existence, but also never letting the character wallow. “I like to work,” she says to an employment advisor, and it’s clear that she does: she’s a can-do person with a solid work ethic who deals with the life in front of her. The larger forces that have stripped her of house and husband are tacitly indicted but never directly confronted. What matters is the next day, the next job, the next mile of highway. So, while we spend time elbow deep in toilets and shivering in freezing roadside rest stops, we also experience both the incredible beauty of the American hinterlands and the rather more melancholy allure of its dying towns, and the camaraderie of the nomad nation.
Which in lesser hands might come across as more than a little paternalistic (I’m reminded of the TV executive in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King who wants to make a sitcom about happy homeless people) but Zhao smartly, and I’d argue crucially, populates her film with members of the nomadic subculture she and we are exploring. Character actor Davis Strathairn (Sneakers, L.A. Confidential) crops up as a fellow traveler and possible love interest for Fern, but he’s the only recognizable industry face other than McDormand’s. Instead, we get the privilege of meeting elder statesman of the road Bob Wells, who dispenses advice to newbie caravaneers; the soulful Charlene Swankie, the joyous Linda May. All of these people are nomads.
Are they playing themselves? Avatars of themselves? Fictional characters within Fern’s narrative? Yes. Werner Herzog likes to talk about his idea of “ecstatic truth”, which is the notion that in both fiction and documentary you can attain, if you’re very good and very lucky, a kind of truth that transcends mere fact – that actually connects is with an ineffable element of the universal human condition. Zhao, with her careful blending of both forms, might be the most skillful proponent of the theory currently going.
Lyrical yet hard-nosed, beautiful and tough, Nomadland is a superb piece of cinema that is led by McDormand’s empathetic performance but is not constrained by it. Instead, we are given the gift of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, or perhaps driving a season in someone else’s van, in a precise and nuanced manner rarely attained by mainstream American film. Nomadland is one of the best films of 2020 and frankly, it doesn’t look like its getting much competition in 2021 either. Run to it. (9/10)