In 2011, the company town of Empire, Nevada became a ghost town practically overnight when the gypsum plant around which it was built was closed. Fern (Frances McDormand), one of the many to lose her livelihood, house, and community in one fell swoop, finds herself one of the many older Americans to see their way of life and long-running means of survival disappear before her eyes. Getting by on seasonal contracts at an Amazon warehouse and other miscellaneous short-term gigs, Fern commits to living full-time in her van and gets to know a number of fellow drifters along the way.
Many tales of nomadic, off-the-grid life can take on an eye-roll inducing, rose-tinted version of what self-sufficient life on the road looks like, steeped in the rather unpalatable glaze of privileged ignorance. The sort of romanticized notions that Christopher McCandless and all his Walden-worshipping kin fill their heads with, conveniently missing the parts where Thoreau’s mom fed him and did his laundry and how the man clearly wouldn’t know self-sufficiency if it bit him on the nose.
Nomadland is blessedly free of all this nonsense, a sweepingly majestic contemporary Western that’s full of beauty but never falsely glamorizes its subject matter. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography wonderfully captures the awesome of the sprawling landscapes Fern encounters in her travels while proving similarly adept in handling smaller, more intimate moments as Fern navigates the realities of van life
Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century and featuring several real-life American nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves, writer-director Chloé Zhao’s third feature displays remarkable strengths notably consistent with those seen in her earlier works.
As was the case with 2017’s The Rider, Zhao displays a particular skill for capturing stellar performances from non-actors that imbibe the film on the whole with a particular ring of authenticity. From Bob Wells, who organizes the meetup known as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous and creates something of a support system within the nomadic community, to Charlene Swankie, an older nomad also playing a fictionalized version of herself who steals one of the most emotionally moving scenes in the whole film, there’s such a sense of nuanced reality to the non-actors that it’s the professional who ends up feeling a little like the odd one out. While Frances McDormand is utterly brilliant and totally compelling as Fern, the only other performance from a professional actor—Dave, a short-term nomad and recently divorcee played by David Strathairn—feels on a slightly different and less compelling wavelength than the rest of the film. He doesn’t give a bad performance, he’s just a little too polished, and his character just a little too convenient. To be fair, Dave really is a plot device who ultimately exists to reveal more about Fern and give her story some structure. Ultimately, he succeeds on both these fronts, even if his relative artifice does become somewhat self-evident in the process.
As a portrait of the modern American west and the closest thing 21st-century reality has to that mythological figure of the cowboy, with his freedom and self-sufficiency, Fern and her fellow drifters represent at once a modern reality that feels at once descended from one particularly American fantasy and evidence of the destruction of another tenet of the nation’s mythology. While the “American dream” of being able to adequately provide for one’s family through honest hard work, regardless of one’s origins, has always been just a fantasy for many, it is a dream that has gone from being accessible only to some to fleeting for all, as outsourcing and automation have reshaped the US workforce and hit blue-collar professions especially hard.
Nomadland paints a heartfelt portrait of a lifestyle and a fascinating community, but it’s not a recruitment brochure. While some wanderers are depicted as nomads entirely by choice, who left the 40-hour workweek world to turn on, tune in, drop out, after a fashion, many others find themselves thrown into the van life by circumstance and necessity. The film makes the smart decision to leave Fern’s particular stance rather ambiguous; while she finds joy and wonder in her new life where it is to be found and turns down offers for both short and long-term stays in various guests’ rooms, even Fern’s very name suggests that she’s not opposed to having roots on principle. She clearly looks back at her life in Empire fondly and with nostalgia. She had a place where she had roots, and she was happy there. And now that place, her place, is gone, and she doesn’t want to squeeze into empty spaces around other people’s lives in order to live in a house when she still has any alternative. Even if that alternative is a van—after all, the nomadic lifestyle does come with some incredible views.
Header Image Source: Searchlight Pictures