Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland has been racking up awards and rave reviews since it first appeared in the United States late last year. This week it took out Best Film and Best Director at the Golden Globes. It’s a movie in which almost nothing happens but the images and scenarios remain lodged in one’s mind for weeks. Those who love Nomadland love it to excess, but – buyer beware – it’s not for everyone. If your idea of a great night out is the latest Fast and Furious, don’t consider it. Even those viewers who simply look out for a well-told story may have difficulties.
Strange, affecting and melancholy, Nomadland leaves one with a lingering feeling of sadness for a society that is fraying at the edges, scattering small fragments across the map of America. It puts faces and personalities to those drifting particles of humanity which collect in out-of-the-way corners.
Frances McDormand plays one of those particles in a defiantly low-key performance that will ensure she’s represented in all the shortlists for the awards season. Her character, Fern, is a study in resilience who has little to fall back on apart from a positive attitude towards life.
Fern is tough, weatherbeaten and self-sufficient. She is cast in the role of a wanderer when her home town withers around her. The ironically named Empire was a small community in the wilds of Nevada, built around the gypsum business, but when demand drops and the factory closes there’s nothing left. Fern’s husband has died and she has decided to change her way of life. Instead of wasting away in Empire she will sell her house and hit the road in an old camper van she’s fitted up as a new home.
Fern drives from place to place, picking up casual work where she can, then moving on. She makes new friends who are also nomads, mostly older women and men who had reached a turning point in their lives and didn’t want to be a burden on friends and family. Women like Linda May and Swankie are played by Linda May and Swankie – real-life nomads who only have to be themselves in front of the camera.
In her brief career (Nomadland is only her third feature), Zhao has become known for this trademark blending of fiction and fact. Her films don’t rearrange reality in any radical way, they make small interventions that throw the lives of ordinary people into sharp relief. It’s mind-boggling to think that her next production is the big budget super-hero flick, The Eternals. One imagines musclebound figures in capes sitting around drinking takeaway coffee, quietly discussing the responsibilty of saving the planet.
There’s a lot of casual yarning in Nomadland. When the nomads get together it’s at a camp, or rather a glorified parking lot, organised by Bob Wells, himself a real-life guru of the movement. When Fern talks with Bob he speaks from the heart about what he does, and why he does it. We’re not listening to a lecture, it’s just a conversation, like every other conversation in this understated blend of drama and documentary. In most cases the nomads are driven by loss – by their grief over the death of a loved one or the disintegration of the small worlds they once inhabited. Fern ticks both boxes.
Nothing in this movie follows the usual Hollywood templates. When Fern comes across an abandoned dog we naturally assume she will adopt it, but instead she walks away. When she meets a elderly fellow named Dave (played by an unrecognisable David Stathairn), we imagine this will be her chance at a new life but the clichés we anticipate fail to arrive.
We intuitively realise what’s going though Fern’s mind, both with Dave and with her sister’s family, whom he visits while her van is being fixed. She doesn’t actually want another life, another set of attachments. She has become accustomed to the freedom of the nomadic lifestyle and is prepared to endure the poverty, the hardships and insecurities in order to maintain that sense of existential independence. Besides, Dave is a bit of a drip, and Fern is a strong, can-do personality.
Fern’s story is presumably meant to be inspiring but it’s impossible not to put oneself in her shoes and ask: “Could I live like this? Would I want to spend my declining years driving around in a camper van, pursuing the gypsy lifestyle?” My reply was a resounding “No”, and I expect the vast majority of viewers would say the same.
There is a dignity in the way the nomads have chosen to live. It’s a rebellion against all the conventions and expectations that keep us anchored to one small patch of earth, gathering rust. But it’s also a reaction to a world that has come unstuck, as small communities die and poorly-paid casual jobs replace full-time professions. While taking a sympathetic line on the nomads Zhao has also said that in a country as wealthy as America people “shoudn’t be forced into that lifestyle.”
In the United States today this social dislocation is so widespread it has created millions of people who feel disenfranchised from society. They turn to the Evangelical Church to find hope, if not in this life then in Heaven. Others, as we’ve seen, immerse themselves in bizarre conspiracy theories or join right-wing extremist groups.
For Fern and her peers there’s no simmering hatred and resentment, no search for scapegoats or saviours. The nomads are as peaceful as Buddhist monks, quietly making their way through life on minimal means with no expectations of earthly rewards. One can respect these choices and even admire the quietism that allows the nomads not to give way to the various forms of despair into which so many of their fellow citizens have fallen, but it still feels like a pale shadow of a fulfilling existence. Is this the best that an increasing number of working-class people can hope for? Nomadland feels at times like an oblique parody of Emersonian self-reliance, an elegy for generations of Americans who saw themselves reflected in the distorting mirror of Hollwood movies while the ground was slipping away beneath their feet.
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Written by Chloé Zhao, after a book by Jessica Bruder
Starring Frances McDormand, Linda May, Bob Wells, Swankie, David Strathairn
USA/Germany, rated M, 108 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 March, 2021