One of the things we learn from the films of Chloé Zhao is this: bad luck is the stuff that happens before a story begins. As “The Rider” (2018) gets under way, the hero—a young fellow named Brady—already has an angry gash in his head, having tumbled from his horse at a rodeo and taken a hoof to the skull. And now, at the start of “Nomadland,” which Zhao wrote and directed, we meet Fern (Frances McDormand), who no longer has a husband, a regular job, or a home. Well, she does have a home, but it’s a white van that she has adapted, with lots of storage space, to be her only dwelling. She calls it Vanguard.
Another takeaway from Zhao’s work: no land is more fertile than the border zone between documentary and fiction. Brady, for instance, is played by a real-life rider, also named Brady, from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, and his wound is no invention. His sister, Lilly, who has Asperger’s, plays a version of herself. In the same vein, most of the folks in “Nomadland” are, as it were, true to themselves—genuine wanderers, recounting their experience as birds of passage, and radiating a singular blend of stringency and warmth. Thus, Linda, a smiling and capable figure with silver hair, is played by Linda May; Swankie, who has seven or eight months to live, and who hangs a skull and crossbones on the side of her van, is played by Swankie; and so on.
“Nomadland,” which won the main prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is based on the 2017 book of the same name, by Jessica Bruder. That is nonfiction, through and through: a deep delve, patiently researched, into the rising number of Americans for whom a stable existence is unaffordable. They may have been scathed by personal hardship, or spit out by the financial collapse of 2008. Most of them are of riper years, weathered by a steady-humored stoicism, and they’ve shrugged off the burden of property ownership in favor of what’s known as wheel estate. According to the jargon, you can be a vandweller or, more specifically, a workamper, which means that you travel around in your R.V. in search of temporary jobs, some of which come with a place to park, plus access to power and water. It was Bruder who came across Linda, Swankie, and other nomads, and reported in detail on the pattern of their endurance; now they have migrated into Zhao’s movie and brought their weatherings with them. But what’s so dramatic about it? Why is it not a documentary?
In a word, because of Fern. She is a fictional creation, and she’s played by a bona-fide film star, albeit one with a hilariously low dose of airs and graces. (If McDormand receives an Oscar nomination for her pains, as she should, expect her to show up in Crocs.) One of the first actions that she is required to perform onscreen is to pee outside, in the middle of nowhere, on a freezing day. Later, an upset stomach forces her to excrete noisily into a bucket. At the other extreme, she gets to float naked in a creek, gazing up at the sky, with arms flung wide: a tranquil sight, though it doesn’t look especially healing or transcendent. It looks cold.
I tried to imagine another actress in the role, but soon gave up. Only someone as rooted and as resilient as McDormand, perhaps, can play so rootless a character. Fern used to live and to labor in Empire, Nevada, an old-school company town, owned by United States Gypsum. As we’re told at the outset of the film, 2011 marked the end of Empire; the plant was shut, and the town effectively died. Fern was married to a guy named Bo, but he, too, passed away. They had no children, and now it’s just her and Vanguard. At a sporting-goods store, she runs into a family she knows. “Are you still doing the van thing?” the mother asks, as if nobody could keep up such a life for long. “My mom says that you’re homeless, is that true?” her daughter says. Fern, unfazed, replies, “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”
Motion pictures, from their earliest days, have leaned toward people on the move. The medium is not made for staying still. It seems natural that Chaplin, left alone in the final shot of “The Circus” (1928), on a patch of waste ground marked by a circle where the big top stood, should not linger long, in reflective mood, but turn and amble away. As the iris closes around him, we don’t inquire where he might go next; what counts is the manner of his going. The same applies to Jack Nicholson, as Bobby Dupea, at the bitter end of “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), abandoning his girlfriend at the gas pumps, beside the Red Rooster Café, and hitching a ride on a logging truck—no wallet, no plans, not even a jacket, although, as the trucker says, where they’re headed will be colder than hell.
Fans of that film will recall that Bobby, whom we first see on a California oil rig, is a former classical pianist. It’s an odd conceit, yet we buy it, because of Nicholson. Something similar occurs in “Nomadland,” when Fern, in conversation with a shy young drifter, suddenly declaims a Shakespeare sonnet. The scene is both unlikely and sublime, and it compels us to reassess Fern’s motives. She was once a substitute teacher; is that not a portable skill? Couldn’t she search for a school that needs a new teacher, drive there, and begin again? Or—here’s the rub—has she gradually grown allergic to social norms and addicted to the open road? “All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.” So says Huckleberry Finn, in the opening chapter of his adventures, and it’s as if his craving has filtered down to Fern.
No wonder the film is so tense. Fern is never attacked or robbed, thank heaven, yet the smell of possible danger hangs around. Notice how she stares ahead as she eats, like a guard on watch. In everyday dealings, her courtesy is a kind of armor, and, when she’s offered the chance to settle, in a safe haven, she rebuffs it. One day, after her van has broken down, she visits her sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith), who lives on a pleasant suburban street—an alien planet, compared with the badlands and the wilderness where Fern prefers to roam. “You left home as soon as you could,” Dolly says to her, remembering their childhood, and Fern, having borrowed cash, is soon gone again.
Then, there is Dave, a workamper, with too many miles on the clock. He’s played by David Strathairn, whom I initially failed to spot, not just because of his stiff white beard but also because of the diffidence with which he ducks in and out of the frame. Zhao is the foe of the meet-cute. Early on, Fern walks away from a whimpering dog and, contrary to the laws of cinematic gratification, does not go back to claim it; with Dave, who is in equal need of companionship, she proves no easier to sway. Now and then, their orbits intersect—in the kitchen at Wall Drug, say, in South Dakota, where he flips burgers and she scrapes grease off the grill. Like many nomads, Dave has fouled up his life. (How, exactly, we can’t be sure; but so expressive is Strathairn that we’re sure enough.) Not without trepidation, he is returning to his family for the birth of his grandson. Fern is invited to stop by, and so, at Thanksgiving, she rolls up, to the friendliest of welcomes. “You can stay,” Dave says. “Thanks, I need to do laundry,” she replies, though that isn’t what he had in mind. The bed in the guest room is so soft that Fern has no option but to go and sleep in her van. She leaves before anyone else is awake.
Somewhere, inside this lovely and desperate movie, there’s the ghost of a Western. Though people still gather around a campfire, their talk is of cancer and P.T.S.D. Instead of cowboys driving cattle to high pastures, Fern and her kindred spirits converge, in certain months, on an Amazon warehouse—still obeying the rhythm of the seasons, I guess, as they bubble-wrap junk and box it in time for Christmas. Bruder’s book called attention to the economic ruthlessness of the Amazon setup, and the effect of the toil on older employees; Zhao is more focussed on Fern, as she greets her fellow-drones at lunch, and slices banana onto her peanut-butter sandwich.
“Nomadland” is not primarily a protest. Rather, it maintains a fierce sadness, like the look in its heroine’s eyes, alive to all that’s dying in the West. That is why Zhao so often films at daylight’s decease, catching enormous skies of violet and rose, and why her fable speaks to us, in 2020, as John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” did to audiences eighty years ago. Fern’s needs and rights are as basic as those of the Joad family, yet there was a breadth and an uplift to their yearning that has since dwindled to a speck. “Fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul,” Tom Joad said. “The one big soul that belongs to everybody.” Some hope. Fern has her own soul, and it’s hers alone, packed away tight in the van, together with her toothbrush and her chicken-noodle soup. On she goes.
Article by: Anthony Lane for the New Yorker.