There are moments in life when reality feels altered, shifted in some orphic, important way. Is there a name for that feeling when you sit on the steps of a dimly lit stairwell? Or when you amble through a school hallway during the summer? Or when you’re the sole patient in a fluorescent hospital waiting room? Or when everyone’s gone to sleep and you’re the only one awake at the sleepover? Whatever defines the essence of these moments — maybe solitude, maybe liminality, maybe loneliness — director Chloé Zhao captures it in her masterful movie “Nomadland.”
Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction novel “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” the new film hits the road with Fern (Frances McDormand), a fictional middle-aged widow. Grappling with the death of her husband and the dissolution of her home in Empire, Nev., Fern picks up odd, seasonal jobs and lives in her van, which she has named “Vanguard.” A true story, the town’s US Gypsum plant shut down amid the Great Recession, crushing job opportunities and forcing residents out of their homes. While its source material sprawls across a collection of stories, Zhao’s “Nomadland” spins a personal and particular narrative; Fern acts as the audience’s steward, guiding us through the winding and sundry landscape of modern nomadic living, or as Bob Wells calls it: “vandwelling.” (Wells is one of the real-life nomads who make an appearance in the film, along with the charming Linda May and Swankie).
There’s a wisdom coloring Zhao’s artistic vision, and this maturity finds its muse in McDormand. It feels too upbeat to call McDormand’s performance fantastic —while that statement is unquestionably true, the actress offers shards of guardedness, self-reliance, and vulnerability. In the opening scene, when Fern unpacks her belongings from the back of a truck, the actress’ contained facial expressions charge the silence, making it emotionally disquieting to watch. There’s another moment when Fern frolics around a hazy, almost purple canyon in her white sneakers. McDormand does not allow her character to be dwarfed by the towering rocks, but instead, she coexists with the setting, exuding a refreshing childlike wonder. The camera does not shy away from McDormand’s age or the wrinkles on her face, and it feels appropriate for the film to explore the experiences of seasoned people spending their golden years in the hazy desert. As Fern, McDormand belongs in and begets the expansive world that Zhao builds.
The characters whom Fern encounters on her journeys feel alive. There’s a moment where Swankie expresses the way nature transformed her life and restored her resolve: Zhao translates that sensibility into the film and its depiction of the American West. Zhao pays thoughtful, quietly rapt attention to the natural world. It’s as if the sun-dappled valleys and tan stretches of desert are characters in their own right. As the director-writer-editor-producer, Zhao cleverly invokes the filmic tradition of neorealism — in her camerawork, in her editing and in the mix of professional and non-professional actors — while maintaining the exploratory rhythm of a Western. Audiences can never be sure if a moment is scripted or spontaneous, which conjures an alluring blend of authenticity and artistry.
“Nomadland” finds its ethos in its characters. The film chooses to subtly diagnose an ill of society — the industry that forces older, seasoned folks like Fern to uproot — without prescribing a moralizing solution. As its characters wander, the movie wonders about home, memory, and loss; it spawns more questions than answers, but nonetheless, there’s importance in contemplation.
“Nomadland” feels like a prediction and it feels like the past. It mulls over what lies on the poles of our existence — life and death, settlement and movement, future and history — through a story that puts humanity at the core. If there’s no place like home, then perhaps home isn’t a place at all.