The story of a woman who finds herself by getting lost.
DIRECTED BY CHLOE ZHAO / 2020
“I’m not homeless,” Fern explains to a young girl at one point during Nomadland, “I’m just house-less. Not the same thing, right?” Fern, played by Frances McDormand, is indeed house-less. She’s recently lost her husband, her job, her house, and her entire town. A title card informs us that after 2012’s recession the town of Empire, Nevada, lost so many people, they actually discontinued Empire’s zip code. So without a whole lot of options open to her, Fern has purchased a van, and this will serve as her home.
The movie follows Fern as she uses her van, nicknamed Vanguard, to drive across the western United States, following seasonal jobs. Over the course of a year, she works in an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas season, works at a roadside stand that sells rocks, works at a hot dog stand inside of Wall Drug, as a host in a campground in the badlands, and operates machinery during a beet harvest.
Nomadland isn’t heavy on story. The movie, written and directed by Chloe Zhao, and based on a book by Jessica Bruder, is constructed more as a series of vignettes illustrating Fern’s life on the road. It unfolds as what one reviewer referred to as a “tone poem.” That sort of language describing film usually sets my teeth on edge (like how some folks will say ‘meditative’ when they really wanna be saying ‘boring’), but Nomadland is more focused on mood and character moments than plot. If you’ve seen Zhao’s earlier films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, that should come as no surprise. That’s the mode Zhao works in (and it’s what makes me look forward to her next upcoming project — Marvel’s The Eternals — with no small amount of curiosity).
During her journeys, Fern (and us) meets others who have adopted the nomadic lifestyle. She spends time in a gathering of nomads, where she learns some of the practicalities of living in a van, and she makes a few friends. She also meets David (David Strathairn), who makes clumsy and awkward attempts to connect with Fern. Fern has little interest in pursuing any sort of lasting relationship with anyone. The call of the open road beckons her. Even when she joins a tour at the badlands, she wanders off from the group to explore on her own, picking her way carefully over the rugged, alien landscape. Just as she describes herself as being ‘house-less,’ not ‘homeless,’ she is alone, but she is not lonely. It is in quiet solitude that she is most at peace.
Fern’s travels are beautifully photographed by Joshua James Richards. This is his third collaboration with Zhao, having shot her previous two features. He shoots using natural light for the exteriors, and mostly practical lighting when photographing inside. This approach not only allows Zhao and her small team to shoot scenes quickly, it gives the film a greater sense that we are not watching actors deliver lines of dialogue from a script, but a documentary showing the stories of real people.
And for all the characters who inhabit Nomadland, Fern and David are the only ones played by actual professional actors. Like her previous efforts, Zhao fills out her films using non-actors, whose real lives provide the details of their characters’ stories. Swankie, Linda May, and Bob are all real people, real nomads. Their characters’ stories are filled with details of their own, real, lives. When (movie) Swankie delivers a monologue, it’s coming from the experiences of (real) Swankie. That’s one of the ways Zhao is able to get such naturalistic performances from non actors — they aren’t performing at all.
That McDormand can blend so seamlessly into the lives of these people is a testament to her skills. Through her roles in films like Fargo, she established herself as much a national treasure as the redwoods and badlands Fern visits. Nomadland cements that. It’s not a showy role, but quietly and deeply penetrating.
What insights Fern gleans, or what truths she ultimately discovers are never made 100% clear to us. Her journey of self discovery is kept close, a private matter for her and her alone. What is clear is that even as her travels across the American landscape have brought her full circle, back to the place where it began, they are not over. There’s still too much out there, and within her, she needs to explore.