Somber but never dismal, personal and yet enormous, Nomadland is a blunt and moving tale set in the decaying American wasteland that is sure to be a major awards contender
Filmmaker Chloé Zhao comes to her work with an outsider perspective, and perhaps it’s because of that she’s able to capture the beauty of the modern day United States in a way most people born and raised here couldn’t.
Zhao, who lived in Beijing before moving to Los Angeles to finish her schooling, set her previous two films – Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider – on the Pine Ridge Reservation, telling stories of the Lakota people. The latter, which stars Brady Jandreau as a cowboy finding renewed purpose after a life-altering injury, attempts to avoid the usual tropes and romanticized tragedies that audiences have grown accustomed to seeing from stories of indigenous people.
There’s a fine line to tread when creating something that acknowledges the oppressive conditions its characters live in, as well as the broader social and political circumstances that create said conditions, while actively trying to prevent it from becoming overly dismal or playing into poverty porn. But Zhao always retains her focus on the personal, keeping things centered on her small cast and pulling from reality as much as possible. She blurs the line between fiction and documentary in her unique approach to filmmaking, which involves the casting of first time actors from the areas she’s shooting in and having them more or less play themselves, oftentimes incorporating their life stories into the broader one she’s telling.
Her latest film, Nomadland, continues on that same trajectory – a significant portion of it is even set in the South Dakota Badlands near Pine Ridge – but opts for a bigger scope. Like The Rider, it’s a personal story of finding purpose again in the wake of loss, but it feels much more all-encompassing and reaches a bit further, expanding its thoughts to broader contemplations on our place in the world and the larger universe. It’s her best film yet, one that proves her higher aspirations and gives a tentative glimpse at the massive blockbuster turn that her career is about to take.
Nomadland follows a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand, who also served as a producer) in the wake of the Great Recession. Fern’s home of Empire, Nevada – like countless other places throughout the country – was devastated by the economic meltdown, resulting in the Sheetrock plant that employed both her and her husband shutting down. In only a couple of short years, the zip code would be discontinued, Empire would become a ghost town, and Fern’s husband would be dead. With few job prospects and even fewer options, she’s forced to pack her belongings into her van and head out for a life on the road.
Zhao shows Fern’s travels and newfound lifestyle through beautifully juxtaposed imagery. Gorgeous sunrises and sunsets cover the untouched landscapes that Fern treks across. Baths are taken in shimmering rivers as birds flutter above. Rocks are given special attention, both in their hidden physical beauty and their way of constantly rebuilding themselves throughout years and years. Part of the film is about the survivability of people and the human spirit as a whole; as time passes and things change, we too constantly build new foundations and forge new bonds.
Sometimes, that process isn’t too pretty. The heavenly portions of Fern’s journeys are balanced out by the indignations she and others are forced to suffer beneath the tyranny of the dollar. Fran layers up for cold nights spent in gas station parking lots, at least the ones she isn’t shooed away from. As fireworks go off in the distance to signal New Year festivities, she sits alone and shivering in her van eating canned food. A massive dystopian Amazon facility is the only place to find decent paying seasonal work. But its cold and monotonous halls are filled with optimism thanks to the people there – a wide variety of folks from all walks of life who still possess good spirits and friendly attitudes.
It’s here that Fern befriends Linda May, an older woman who, like many others, worked her entire life only to be given nothing in social security benefits, and has never been able to retire. As Fern’s introduced to others living similar lifestyles, she hears stories of people in similar situations, as well as others crushed by medical debt or stagnant wages. Nomadland can certainly act as a critique of the United States’ crumbling infrastructures and lack of safety nets, but it never once attempts to cast the people living there in a negative light. They’re all victims of the failed promise of the American Dream.
But Zhao is determined to show the perseverance of those people and the innate beauty of that. For some, referring to them as victims could be an insult. The nomad life is incredibly freeing for many of them. This is a movie about finding oneself and what defines home, and the more we learn about Fern as the film progresses, the more we realize the conflict within her in determining who she is and what she wants to be doing. What exactly home is for Fern is something she’s figuring out herself. As a stubborn, self-reliant personification of America’s “bootstraps” mentality, she’s someone that wants neither help nor pity. Naturally, she’ll learn that reliance on others is not weakness, and that cooperation is what got us this far in the first place.
Zhao’s work has been compared to that of Terrence Malick, a filmmaker known for his transcendent and meditative style. The comparison is fair – like Malick, Zhoe is able to put you in an introspective, trance-like state, where you find yourself contemplating your own life and your own choices and feelings. This can happen for long stretches of the film as it wafts in and out of a traditional narrative structure in favor of almost hypotonic imagery and voice-overs that hint at the broader spiritual and philosophical overtones of the story. But Malick’s films feel a bit more abstract, like an out-of-body experience, whereas Zhao’s focus on the personal makes Nomadland more streamlined and more human. Even so, the film is still open for a wide variety of interpretations and ideas that you can walk away from it with.
McDormand is the first major star to be in one of Zhao’s films (David Strathairn also appears in an excellent performance) and it may be a factor in how Nomadland feels so much bigger than anything she’s done before, despite it still being a very self-contained story. Zhao’s next project is Marvel Studios’ Eternals, which is quite a leap in terms of scale, recognition, and budget, not to mention the sudden presence of corporate overlords. But anyone who watches Nomadland – which is currently looking to be a frontrunner for this awards season – should be adding that particular superhero flick to their most anticipated.
Nomadland is now streaming on Hulu.