In a year that for most people has been largely defined by not leaving the house, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a paean to wide, open spaces.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel, we follow Fern (Frances McDormand). Uprooted by the 2008 recession – the film opens in 2011 – and by the death of her husband, Fern has hit the road in her camper van; seeking out seasonal employment along along the West Coast.
Shot on the road and populated largely by non-actors – with the exception of McDormand and David Straitharn, as would-be suitor David – Nomadland takes us from the shiny industry of an Amazon fulfilment factory, in possibly the most positive depiction of the organisation outside of a company training video1 to camper communities dotted across the American heartland with new acquaintances and familiar faces.
The film shows profound empathy for an under-depicted subsection of American culture; like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, though with icy plains replacing pink stucco, and no promise of Disneyland2 What sells it is the sense of fidelity – the cast and crew lived out of campers during production – and McDormand’s remarkable performance.
McDormand’s infinitely subtle performance threads the needle through this patchwork of places and people. Ludovico Einaudi’s simple yet haunting piano score elevates a quiet walk into something melancholy and profound.
Fern’s tough, stoic nature and sheer adaptability belie a sense of loss but of pride, too; like that which she takes in camper van, Vanguard, and keepsakes. She’s a good listener, too – the best acting, as they say, is reacting – and some of Nomadland’s most powerful scenes take the form of monologues: Swankie’s (Charlene Swankie) reminiscences of a life full of experiences, or Bob (Bob Well) discussing his philosophy on life.
Zhao just lets the camera roll, aided by Joshua James Richards’s golden-hour cinematography, and McDormand holds the scene with them, often without saying a word. There’s hardship, stories and illustration of – shitting in a bucket, or when it’s too cold to sleep – but Nomadland is so engrained in these characters’ existences that you never doubt that this is a viable way of life; even a desirable one, depending on your circumstances.
Indeed, whenever Fern is forced to stay over in a house, you wonder why anyone would ever choose that lifestyle; to voluntarily be tied down like that. As one character remarks to her, “It’s always ‘out there’ that’s more interesting”. Based on the evidence here, I’m inclined to agree.