Imagine a place on the map so tied to its industries that when the work disappears, so does the place. This shouldn’t be so hard to imagine; it is, in so many ways, the story of America’s once-towering industrial cities. It could also describe the places beyond the gutted downtowns and main streets, areas whose populations hover in the low thousands, or hundreds, or even less — municipalities so diffuse that the eradication of the local identities, traditions, and people anchored to the geography can be literal. A zip code can be, as Chloé Zhao’s new film Nomadland puts it in an opening title card, “discontinued.” (The movie begins a one-week qualifying run in virtual cinemas today; it goes into wide release next February.) “On January 31, 2011,” it tells us, “due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, U.S. Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years.” And with that, Empire was no more. It’s an astonishing thing to think about, particularly in terms of what comes after for the town’s residents. If you need work to live, and if home is meant to be an anchor, who are you without either?
It’s a question mired in a tangle of social presumptions, many of them privileged. But it’s precisely this set of presumptions, with their attitude of liberal concern, that Nomadland deftly and unexpectedly peels apart — even as its overriding sense of humane intentions would appear to be in line with them. The movie (which was not only directed, but also written, edited, and co-produced by Zhao) takes its title from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, an immersively reported work of nonfiction. Yet we can’t quite call the movie an “adaptation,” exactly. In line with the sparkling melange of fiction and non- that has, over the course of only three feature films, become Zhao’s trademark, her latest work takes elements of reality and mixes them with the honed dramatism of what a friend of mine calls a “movie movie.” Which is to say: a plain old movie.
Zhao’s last project, The Rider (2017), starred the retired rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, as well as his immediate family and friends — none of them professional actors; all of them members of the Lakota Sioux nation who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It dropped all of them into a story somewhat like Jandreau’s own (minus the part where he becomes the star of a breakout festival-circuit movie). It’s eerie for playing somewhat like a funhouse distortion of movies like Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest (1977), which retells and mythologizes the story of the champ’s come-up as an athlete and man after the 1960 Olympics. Ali starred as himself; the movie builds toward the “Rumble in the Jungle,” a fight which, you may remember, Ali won. The Rider, by contrast, is the story of a hero-champion who’s suffered a devastating brain injury and can no longer ride, just like the real Jandreau. There’s no heroic Rumble here for him to reenact, no champion myth that will endure beyond the man himself. By the time the movie starts, that’s already the past. Instead, Zhao overwhelms us with another myth: an American West whose beauties and possibilities, so iconic and familiar from movies and legends, are sustained, but whose everyday realities have, in the interim, fallen far short of that dream.
The Rider is a western; Nomadland is not. It is nevertheless similarly invested in looking beyond the idea of a place toward the real lives at its center. Zhao one again relies on mixed methods, nonfiction rendered into compellingly realistic drama thanks to a cast of nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves. The result is as stimulating and satisfying as it is iffy and curious — all healthy indications of an experiment at work. An unexpected benefit of having Bruder’s book to guide the filmmaker in this effort is that, for the readers of the book, some of the characters we meet will be familiar. There’s Linda May as the still-upbeat Linda, and Charlene Swankie as Swankie, and, playing a man named Bob, the 60-something internet personality Bob Wells, whose video dispatches on his YouTube channel (CheapRVLiving) have become a dedicated resource for similar people who live and migrate in vans and RVs as self-declared (even if not always by choice) nomads.
Among them looms a veritable movie star. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widower from the town formerly known as Empire, and a relative newcomer to the nomadic life, compared to the veteran wanderers she meets on her journey. Nomadland is essentially a slice of life, as experienced from season to season, with all the comings and goings one might expect, from one woman’s perspective. Her van — her home — is named Vanguard. And for the people in the life she once lived, there’s an assumption of misery to Fern’s fate. “I’m not homeless,” she says to a young woman she once mentored, in a clarifying tone. “I’m just … houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
You might expect a movie that pivots on the difference, and hinges on such adventurous production choices, to have a playful, winking awareness. Nomadland, though far from joyless, is not a playful film. Much of that owes to the fact that the travelers of its title are all of a certain age: all of them are boomers, and, per Bruder’s book, many of them were victims of 2008’s stock-market crash. Fern is one such woman. She is, in McDormand’s dependably humane and capable depiction, full of life, memories, desires that confront her needs. But the poles pulling her to and fro are not purely emotional; like everyone, she moves with the work, packs up when it dries up, commits herself to the long haul of this life. You never sense outright regret, which is key.
But the movie also avoids reducing her to the plot device that a movie star, doing her best to fit in among a mobile working class, could easily become. Fern is not merely a thread that guides us through the material of this movie’s various nonfictions, the campfire chats between RVers, the actual (and, frankly, almost too rare) views we get of their labor. At the start of the movie, Fern is one of many older nomads enlisted to work for Amazon’s CamperForce, jobs specifically designed for this group of people. We get the requisite, fleet-footed montages of her at work on the factory floor, chatting over lunch, being a person. Other jobs she works give us other views: cleaning toilets at a trailer park, for example.
McDormand has always seemed like the rare Oscar winner who’d be at home in most of our living rooms, rather than distractingly glamorous or magnetic. It works here. She is most certainly what pulls us through the story, a conceit made most explicit when the camera, tracking her from behind, wanders as she wanders. Zhao goes out of her way to anchor Fern in the felt-reality of these places. (While filming in the fall of 2018, the writer-director lived out of a van along with the rest of the crew.) Scenic miniatures of the character wandering through an RV park are delivered to us in subtly low-angle shots, below the characters’ eye lines. Typically the grammar of shots like these make the people onscreen loom large, their bodies hovering above us; classic westerns, full of heroic poses and the grandeur of their rocky desert environs, are full of these images.
Zhao, however, achieves something thornier than heroism. At times, watching Fern make her way amid fellow nomads, the film seemingly sets us up to take heart at her integration into this world: She feels of a piece with it. Other times — such as, notably, when she’s being left behind, and long columns of mobile homes and customized vans pass her by as her friends move on to find more work — what emerges is a sense of isolation.
It’s a tenuous cycle, a tenuous life. In one scene, Bob Wells likens the lot of them to work horses being put out to pasture, i.e., animals who are forced to fend for themselves at the margins, a feat only made possible if they do so collectively. “Economic times are changing,” he says. “My goal is to get the lifeboats out, and to get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.” As he says this, you see peoples’ homes on the move. Mobility is one of Zhao’s finer ingredients here. This is a film full of transitions: The comings and goings of migratory work seasons give the movie a structural backbone. The friendships Fern builds across the length of the film are all the more fragile for this. They’re as seasonal as the labor.
For all the majesty and naturalistic realism of its imagery, Nomadland is nevertheless full of sublime, uncanny details that lift it somewhat above the fray. Fern’s camper driving through the tight walls of a mountain tunnel. Butterflies alighting on a mirror as she washes her face. Fern, nude, floating in a pool of water. These aren’t elevating, ironic details; they don’t (or shouldn’t) make us feel “better” about Fern’s situation by reminding us that, to invoke a memorable misfire on this subject, life is beautiful.
In fact, one of the prevailing questions of this film — one of the things that catapults it above mere liberal experiment — is the question of choice. At one point, we meet Fern’s family, and we learn that she’d distanced herself from them long before the economic collapse that left her stranded (in their eyes). “You left a big hole by leaving,” her sister tells her. A man she meets and re-meets over the seasons, David (David Strathairn), becomes something of a new anchor for her. There’s possibility brewing between them. But he, too, has a choice to make. He, too, has a family willing to take him in. But will he be taken in? Will Fern?
Giving us this lifestyle as, in part, a lifestyle — a choice — might run counter to the overwhelming sense of economic despair that leaves a great many people choiceless and, in terms of politics, voiceless. In Nomadland, however, it comes off as welcome complication. United and collaborative as they are in this life, the people of this film are individuals. They all have their own reasons, their own experiences. If the movie takes any unwelcome shortcut in this regard, it’s in its somewhat downplayed view of Amazon’s CamperForce program in particular, a job which, per Bruder, demanded of these 50 to 80 year olds that they traverse up to 15 miles a day on stark concrete; in warehouses that grew extremely hot in summer months; and for pay that, one imagines, could have been better, all things considered. It’s in somewhat skirting these working conditions that something like the choice to live this way, and the predilection to divorce oneself from home and family life as we generally conceive of them, grows harder to imagine. It would have been exhilarating to see a film as rich as Nomadland try.