- Searchlight Pictures
The most dramatically compelling moment in Chloé Zhao's Nomadland occurs before the movie even begins: the decision by 60-something widow Fern (Frances McDormand) to leave behind the last semblance of stability in her life and head out on the road alone in a modified van, for an itinerant existence of seasonal labor and a makeshift family of fellow wanderers. The ostensible reason for Fern's choice—the closure of the gypsum mine in Empire, Nevada that all but eradicated the town—is dealt with in an introductory title card, and whatever anguish or uncertainty Fern might have felt at this leap into the unknown is left to our imagination. For all that we can tell, Fern is simply a creature of serene determination, making a brave choice to take on an unconventional lifestyle.
Zhao's 2017 film The Rider explored the story of a real-life person with a seamless blend of fictionalized narrative and pseudo-documentary, which would seem to make her an ideal choice for adapting Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book. But there's something frustrating about the aestheticized approach she takes to this particular subject. With scarcely a nod to the economic circumstances that force many of these people onto the road, or the toll on the bodies of seniors spending what should be their retirement years in physically taxing jobs, Nomadland bathes its characters in the glow of painted Western sunsets.
Necessarily, because of the world it's portraying, Nomadland offers an episodic narrative, following Fern on an annual cycle that includes serving in the holiday workforce at an Amazon warehouse, winter encampment in Quartzsite, Ariz., summer as a national parks camp host, working in the kitchen at South Dakota's legendary-slash-notorious tourist trap Wall Drug, and so on. Along the way, Fern learns valuable tips and tricks from other nomads—mostly played by non-professional actors as themselves—and befriends a kindly fellow (David Strathairn) who takes a liking to her. Fern suffers the occasional setback, generally involving unexpected expenses related to her van, but Nomadland feels so determined to make the subculture it portrays seem entirely one of willing rebels against the system that any hardships feel incidental rather than existential.
It's left to McDormand to serve as our tour guide through this world, and at first glance she feels like exactly the wrong kind of actor for this kind of story; McDormand's gifts as a screen presence are many, but naturalism isn't usually one of them. As it turns out, Zhao's storyline doesn't ask much of her beyond being a stoic physical presence, smiling compassionately at every tale told by her companions and dealing with setbacks undaunted. By the time Nomadland begins filling in the blanks of Fern's own back-story, it's not always easy to see how that history informed the person we see roaming the country in 2012. It's noteworthy that, like the non-professionals in the cast, McDormand and Strathairn play characters who basically have their own names (as Fern at one point asks an RV park manager to look for her reservation under "McD"). They're mostly observers, like Zhao herself, trying to fit into a world not their own. It's as though we're watching McDormand's research for her role filmed for posterity.
Zhao has made no secret of her admiration for Terrence Malick, and Malick's influence is certainly on display here, most noticeably in a sequence when Fern visits the California redwoods. And Nomadland is a beautiful movie, one that doesn't fetishize homelessness with studied grittiness. But it's possible to go too far in the opposite direction, in the way that Malick films can occasionally turn his characters into incorporeal spirits, full of wisdom but seeming to exist on a plane above our own. As a book, Nomadland was fascinating anthropology, yet never ignored its historical context coming on the heels of the Great Recession. As our country faces yet another crisis that could leave many people without housing, it feels strange to see Fern driving confidently and voluntarily out into an expanse that's meant to represent infinite possibility, rather than years defined by no possibility for living any other way.