Chloé Zhao presents another yearning, lyrical look at life on the margins, anchored by a profoundly moving Frances McDormand performance.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)
I grew up in Chloé Zhao‘s America, what many people, derisively or not, call the “Heartland.” White rural populations stretched out over plains, largely abandoned by the rest of the country, and who feel comfortable eking out an existence in their own little communities. 2018’s The Rider was transformative for me, a film I felt got the intricacies and lived experiences of white rural America without judgment or condescension. And with Nomadland, a film strangely aided by the presence of two veteran Hollywood actors among Zhao’s authentic eye, she’s honed that understanding of an oft-forgotten part of America into a masterwork of lyrical yearning.
Where The Rider turned its eye to the bullriding scene of the American Southwest, Nomadland takes the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder and spins a tale of America’s nomadic communities — men and women who roam the country in vans, RVs, and trailers, hoping to spend their years as the new explorers of the American frontier.
Enter Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixty-something widow who subsists on season work at Amazon and elsewhere, pinching pennies to make ends meet as she drives around the country, seeking… something. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” she explains with measured glee, even as old friends and students come up to her and offer a place to stay. She’s a tough old broad, friendly but proud, committed to her nomadic life on the open road.
Like Fern’s own journey, Nomadland doesn’t follow a traditional A-B narrative, instead easing along the road with her to chronicle her journeys. At each stop she makes, she makes friends and trades goods — one of her first destinations is a retreat for RV enthusiasts to band together and trade goods, supplies, and tips about bathroom-bucket sizes. Every so often, she sees the same faces on the road: an old woman (Linda-May) who forges a close friendship with her, a handsome fellow traveler (David Strathairn) who somehow always finds an excuse to talk to her. Sometimes, family and friends try to get her to stay put for good; but even as she tries it, we know she can’t manage it. The road beckons.
Like The Rider, Zhao paints her Americana settings with the mournful blues and optimistic oranges of dawn and dusk, Fern’s life seeming to exist purely between the hours of 5-7am. She shoots naturalistically, with a documentary style that makes you feel truly embedded in this community. And yet, there’s a sense of awe and grandeur here, Zhao finding beautiful moments of visual poetry in the picaresque landscapes of Nebraska, Arizona, and elsewhere.
The tight confines of her van contrast with the wide-open spaces she drives through; when she’s working in a factory or trying out domestic life with Strathairn at his family’s home, the domestic cleanliness causes her (and us) discomfort. At all times, Zhao makes us keenly aware of the pull Fern has towards her lifestyle, and we can’t blame her one bit for it.
All of this meandering would feel hollow but for McDormand’s absolute stunner of a performance as Fern. As the nucleus around which Nomadland centers, she’s a figure of irrepressible resolve — sometimes difficult to like, but never hard to understand. Her smile contains tragedy and joy in equal measure, her every movement carrying the weight of a lifetime of experiences on her shoulders. You can tell Fern’s lived a whole life before Zhao’s cameras started to roll, and McDormand makes you want to know every line of that story.
Circling her is Zhao’s usual host of nonprofessional actors, all real members of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) movement, who also pull in remarkably authentic performances. Linda-May is a ray of sunshine as Fern’s close friend, and RTR organizer Bob Wells is a font of fatherly wisdom and aching sadness. (The way he chokes back tears when he talks about his son’s suicide makes me well up as I type this.) But it’s Swankie, an old woman who helps Fern at a critical moment, only to open up about her terminal illness and how it drives her to see the world before she dies, who makes the biggest impression.
Zhao knows how to find the beauty and dignity in the everyday American and capture it on camera, and Nomadland sees her continuing that tradition in fine form. (One hopes she’ll just be able to find and film real ancient superheroes for The Eternals.)
You can tell Fern’s lived a whole life before Zhao’s cameras started to roll, and McDormand makes you want to know every line of that story.
But surrounding Fern and her misadventures on the American frontier is a feeling of enormity — that the nomads of Nomadland are trying to touch something bigger than themselves. Zhao frequently places Fern among images that remind us of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. We hear about how we’re built from the same matter emitted by the stars. Fern wanders among ancient rocks that have been formed over eons and downed sequoias that have lived for hundreds of years. She’s dwarfed by the Wall Drug Dinosaur, an 80-foot Brachiosaurus statue that reminds us of the giants that used to walk the Earth.
Amidst the mournful intimacy of Fern’s story, Zhao overwhelms us with the size of the world around her. Suddenly, we understand why these old folks want to see so much of it before they die. No more loyalty to the “tyranny of the dollar,” as Bob says; just the equalizing splendor of the road.
Even as Nomadland‘s closing minutes let us in even further to Fern’s life, offering us a glimpse of the home and family she left behind when her husband passed, there’s a sense of hope and a lack of judgment about the way she lives it. That one of the film’s final shots evokes the closing frames of John Ford’s The Searchers makes that abundantly clear. With The Rider and now Nomadland, it’s safe to say that Zhao is the standard-bearer for the New American Western, and we’d better recognize that. And for the love of God, give Frances another Oscar.