Chloé Zhao has an ability to capture the unseen America in a way that sets her apart from any of her contemporaries. There’s no romance in her stories – they are simply facts of life and tell of the natural beauty of the world in all its tangible wonders. “What’s remembered, lived” is mentioned in Zhao’s sprawling, achingly soulful latest picture, a mantra that speaks to the elegance of her directing and the compassionate curiosity she has in her subjects, she too gave life to an otherwise, oft-forgotten society. Nomadland is grace built in dirt, it’s wisdom found in heartbreaking loss, and it’s empathy seen through the eyes of a world weary traveler named Fern (France McDormand), a lifelong hard worker who lost more than everything to the Great Recession. As Fern begins her life as a modern day nomad and embarks on her voyage through the great American West, Zhao depicts life for all its mundanities and terrific, awe inspiring beauty with a dexterous hand that shows that for beauty to exist – to be found – the leg work needs to be put in so that the pay off of witnessing the deep morning waves of fog roll over the mounts or the magic hours when the world is embraced in pinks and oranges becomes transcendent.
Nomadland is less about a society living on the fringe as it is a letter to the people who fill the gaps in the idea of the American dream. They saw the death notices and the warning signs of the scary roads up ahead and decided that, with whatever means they had, they would live the rest of their days on their own terms. Despite how limiting her traveling home seems to be as we see Fern make do with the space that she has, she is getting to see so much of the world she inhabits; through this method of lifestyle, she gets to see what lies beyond.
The start of Fern embarking on her travels is shown in pieces but, due to the Great Recession that’s left her with nothing, a big influence is that of a social divide. One of the first signs of societal disconnect is when Fern speaks to a woman who decided to live in an RV after contemplating suicide, having been burned by the system that was supposed to protect her after having worked for too many tired decades. We’re given hints throughout the film about the evils of corporate America – just look at the insidious lightning the Amazon warehouse is bathed in – but this, along with a campfire gathering where members of the roving RV pack talk about why they chose to hit the road and the need to escape what America has become rings crystal clear. From those who watched their parents die from cancer or those who worked until the moment they died, these are people both grappling with grief while similarly trying to achieve a sense of closure. At one point someone says “I didn’t want my sailboat to still be sitting in my driveway when I die.” It’s this vulnerable need to exist and exist beyond just working to live that galvanized a found community. This is part of the charm of the real community Zhao discovers for us (the film is almost entirely made of non-actors) there’s kindness where you’d expect hostility and patience where the average person would have none.
It’s not just a story about a wandering free spirit on her journey – there’s a strong survivalist element to it that runs parallel to the story without becoming its sole focus. Fern is constantly working at temp jobs in order to keep this version of her livelihood afloat, untethered in ways both good and bad. Similarly, the companionship and sense of community that this lifestyle has brought her is also laced often with loneliness, something we feel specifically due to how Zhao paints her subject, sitting lone against a wide backdrop, wandering into snowy hills or driving around looping mountainsides. It is her journey and hers alone, the grief that inspired it and restlessness that enabled it make it so that hers is singular. She finds friendship on the road and a flicker of something more, but part of what makes Nomadland so utterly piercing is that it is Fern’s story. We are hitched to her as she wanders into her successfully normal sister’s barbeque or leaves the warmth and generosity of a household with childrens toys littering the floor to go back into the not so much the great unknown but rather the unknowable future where stability come from how well the maintenance of your vehicle is holding up. We both want her to find the comfort that we’re accustomed to as much as we are steadfast in our belief that her journey is one worth following through with, even if there’s no cathartic ending in sight.
Nomadland is enchanted by women who wear their age as a badge of honor and McDormand is the perfect face to capture all the pain, wanting and composure that Fern feels at any given time. She’s sturdy built and McDormand doesn’t reach for the easy moments in her performance that would undercut what we know of this character, instead she waits for the moments of solitude where a flicker of her eyes betray her. It might not be the actresses biggest performance, but it still amounts to one of her finest. It’s restrained where others might have let loose, and introspective where so many performers want to share. She, like Fern, keeps her emotions close to her chest, and the lasting effect is transformative.
The imagery of Nomadland won’t’ be easily forgotten and, if we hadn’t already realized with films such as Songs My Brother Taught Me or The Rider (still her best), Zhao is a master filmmaker already. She and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards have created something so profound from simply what they manage to capture out in nature, using their biggest set piece to their triumph .Set so often in the magic hour, they find new ways to film these moments as the sun slowly bleeds out across the plains of Ferns world. There’s a understated passion that goes into the direction of this film, one that has deep respect for its subjects and the land its people inhabit, and there are moments such as a lone descent up a mountain as fog begins to park or when the score by Ludovico Einaudi peaks that are tear inducing in the sheer spirituality that cascades over the film.
Zhao is a visionary – one that believes in the spellbinding wonder of the average day to day person simply trying to find their home. “There’s no final goodbyes – ‘I’ll see you down the road” Fern is told at one point and it is this sentiment, this true belief that we’re meant to travel forward at our own pace just to reunite again – in whatever space or time that means – that is crushing in its ability to stir want in all of us. We all want to move forward at our own speed, to see friends we’ve made again and to rejoice in the world that surrounds us. Zhao finds the beauty in it, the pain in it and all that lies between, making for a film full of remembrance, of joy and loss and, most importantly, of the significance of keeping on moving if your story isn’t settled at your first destination point.
This is a reprint from the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival