America still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession, another collapse which reproved our country’s financial inequities. Fern (Frances McDormand) is one of those who remains affected by the crisis. She’s a seasonal Amazon factory worker living in a barren, little-known corner of America. Widowed and taking shelter in her van, the country she’s occupying has changed: When once the mining of local minerals fueled the populace, now Amazon’s shipping boxes keeps the economic peace. For instance, upon the gypsum plant’s shuttering, due to the demand for sheetrock declining, her town of Empire, Nevada was literally wiped off the map. Now the industrial heritage of the area only survives in the past. Among many others, she feels forgotten, left behind by an economy with little room for her. Driven to the margins, still searches for what once was.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland — the follow-up to her stirring sophomore effort The Rider — is a transcendentalist odyssey about forgotten people learning to live again.
Fern opens this character study as weary, yet chipper. It’s nearing Christmas, and she’s trying to cull some happiness from her simple surroundings. Despite her best efforts, Fern knows something is missing. And when she happens upon a youtube video of a man in the desert offering interactive seminars about how to live as a nomad, she packs up her van, and drives there. When she arrives, she meets a group of women living the autumn of their lives, and forms a friendship with them. Fern becomes immersed in their subculture of transience: They celebrate RV shows and learn how to live off the land. While there, she also meets Dave (David Strathairn), a fellow gentle nomad. The two form an adorable bond as their paths crisscross amid their respective odd jobs.
But even when she’s happy, she’s never really happy. Because Fern lays on her memories so they might not blow away in the desert sand. She holds onto the plates her father salvaged; still wears her wedding ring; and peers at old family photos. It’s difficult not to compare this role to McDormand’s classic turn in Fargo. The two characters have that same affableness which obscures the loneliness swirling underneath. For instance, when Fern and Dave grow closer, her laughter fills the frame. But when it seems they could be more than friends, she retreats behind something more than walls. She finds the desolate space inside herself where the past shields her from the future. McDormand is still finding the little-told stories that lead to impactful cinema. And here she unspools — with the same effortlessness of her character exploring the winding, gorgeous terrain — a feeling of loss that hasn’t declined with time. When Fern’s sister; friends; and Dave tell her that it’s okay to stay awhile, the grief for lost loved ones and her bygone town, wells up beneath her eyes as though she just cried that morning. Fern is afraid to settle down, fearful that stopping is the same thing as dying, the same as forgetting.
Ludovico Einaudi’s solitary, piano laden score makes every composition of this character study ache as though it were ripping off highway to reveal the tread marks of abandonment. Fern consumes the countryside — butterflies; buffalo; streams and forests — slices of nature that are slipping away from us at the same speed as those industrial towns — with a sense of awe. Every frame drips with pathos, a poignancy for the land and the people, as Zhao’s lens settles on these nomads, and gives them the space to speak when no one has listened before. Zhao’s Nomadland is the type of gorgeous capturing of the forgotten and downtrodden that could easily fit inside a modern Woody Guthrie track. She asks: How and where do you want to live? And the answer — between the purple hued skies; the stargazing nomads; and the passage of time in every mile of road — in this masterpiece — is well.
An official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival