In may ways, Nomadland, the latest for writer/director Chloé Zhao (The Rider, and the upcoming Eternals film from Marvel—which was supposed to have been released just a couple of weeks ago) is two perfect movies blended seamlessly into a single statement about a growing segment of the U.S. population that has probably only grown larger over the last nine months. The film puts us in the company of Fern (a haunting performance by Frances McDormand), a woman in her 60s who lived in the thriving community of Empire, Nevada, with her husband, who worked at a processing plant. When the plant was shut down during the Great Recession and her husband died, the town effectively died as well; in the opening title cards, we’re told that within a matter of months of the shutdown, the town was so deserted it even lost its zip code.
Being one of the last to leave Empire, Fern customizes a van—which she names Vanguard—with shelving, storage, a hot plate, curtains and room for a mattress, and makes it her permanent residence as she drives across the Southwest. She gets seasonal work in an Amazon warehouse during the holidays, a beet farm when crops are ready for harvesting, a diner in a Wall Drug. During the first half of the quiet, visually captivating film, Fern (and the audience) are more observational, taking in the lifestyle and realizing that there’s an entire nomadic community living in RVs and other vehicles, going from job to job (often as a group) but effectively living off the grid. Journalist Jessica Bruder put together a non-fiction book about these folks, and Zhao based her film on it, profiling some of the same subjects, if I’m not mistaken, who play themselves in Nomadland. Fern interacts with her fellow Nomads, but keeps a respectful distance as well. The interactions can get quite personal, but it’s difficult to connect when one of the parties must say goodbye, partly because the odds of them running into each other down the road are pretty high.
At times Zhao adopts a more documentary feel to her filmmaking, simply following Fern’s fellow travelers, people with names like Linda May, Swakie, and perhaps the most famous of them all, Bob Wells, who has a popular YouTube channel about RV dwelling and acts as something of a guru for the group. The story (what there is of it) even dangles a possible romantic entanglement in front of Fern, with Dave (David Strathairn, one of the only other professional actors in the movie), but although it’s clear she likes Dave a great deal, she seems fairly resistant to the prospect.
The second half of Nomadland is a bit more story-driven, with small bits of Fern’s backstory becoming clearer after so little was revealed in the early parts of the film. Her van breaks down and she needs emergency funds, so we meet Fern’s sister and brother-in-law when she is forced to visit them in their home, where Fern feels desperately out of place. She even pays Dave a visit at his family’s home where a new grandson has just been born, triggering him to revisit the idea of living in a more permanent place once again. He even asks Fern if she’ll move in with him, and you can probably guess her response. The more story-driven portions of the movie are perhaps more conventional, but I wanted to know anything I could about Fern, so even the small scraps we’re given seem vital.
McDormand has always been a gifted talker and uses her voice and accents to convey so much in her performances. But with Fern, the secret weapon is silence. And when she does speak, the value we put on her words is infinite. When she expresses an opinion or philosophy, it’s immovable. We don’t understand every choice she makes in Nomadland, but we accept them because of all she’s been through. An interesting experience I had with the films is that I spent roughly the first half expecting something conventionally bad to happen to Fern—a car accident, someone stealing her stuff or attacking her in some way, or a promised job not coming through—but at some point, it became clear that Nomadland was not that kind of movie. Certainly not everything that happens to Fern is positive, but no one is out to get her or change her (outside of family members who simply worry about her). This is not a life she chose exactly, but it’s the only one that remained at a certain point and it’s not one she’s ashamed of.
Zhao and McDormand have created a character and an existence for someone that I’d like to revisit periodically in the coming years. I want to know how Fern and her fellow travelers are holding up. Clearly, this is a life people drift in and out of as they get older, and it’s one in which a person can be as isolated as they want—or they can choose to be part of a much larger community. Nomadland is a remarkable character study, a film that captures a lifestyle perfectly, and the result is one of finest and most heartfelt films of the year.
The film opens today in places where movie theaters are open.
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