Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ Paints a Poetic Portrait of Modern America

'Nomadland' is a triumph that captures the contours of people and their stories with the same reverence she has for natural landscapes.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in Nomadland
Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in Nomadland. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Chloé Zhao has been an important voice in American cinema for some time. Her first two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2018) are vital portraits of modern Native America—and now, with Nomadland, she adds another soul-wrenching work to her repertoire, a film so immersed in the iconography of modern Americana that it feels both like an evocation and stern rebuke of the paintings of Norman Rockwell.

Born in Beijing, China, and raised in Brighton, England, Zhao brings an outsider’s perspective and a traveler’s eye to the American landscape. Her latest, which features Frances McDormand in the leading role (and as the film’s producer) follows middle-aged widow Fern, a woman in the ruins of post-recession America, living out of her van as she picks up odd jobs and grows accustomed to a nomadic lifestyle.

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The film is based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder as well as Bruder’s Harper’s report on the same subject, non-fiction portraits of Baby Boomers failed by the American dream, whose nonexistent retirements have meant taking up residence on the road. Two key subjects of the book, Swankie and Linda May—silver-haired women now in their seventies—also feature heavily in the film, playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Zhao has a penchant for casting first-time actors throughout her work (like Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau, whose real-life injury forms the backbone of The Rider), and she directs these real people, with their real flaws and real faces, to naturalistic and conversational performances, resulting in films that ride the line between narrative and documentary cinema.

Such is the case with Swankie and Linda May, among several others in Nomadland, and it’s hard not to fall in love with them. As perpetual travelers for the last decade, they guide Fern (and McDormand, and the audience) through the ins-and-outs of their way of life, from learning to park inconspicuously, to the best buckets in which to relieve oneself. These women could’ve so easily been mere window-dressing in a lesser film, but Zhao centers them in a great many scenes, both thematically and visually, as they narrate tales from life on the move—part real, part fiction, but entirely honest. Linda May is sweet and comforting. Swankie is wry and sarcastic, and they both form cheery opposing foils to the reserved, rough-and-tumble Fern, whose story they enter, leave and enter again, first as strangers, then as old friends who’ve shared joyful memories.

And it is Fern’s story, through and through. However, couching it in the context of Swankie and Linda May, and the real lives they’ve lived, is vital to understanding the film’s beating heart. The story it’s telling, with Fern as its vessel, is really theirs, and it’s the story of all those let down and cast out after the 2008 recession.

As Fern, McDormand turns in a stunning performance. She teeters constantly at the edge of hopelessness, while trying ever-so-hard to maintain a personable smile (even when she’s short-tempered and prickly). A simple walk through a nomadic campsite, as seen in the film’s trailer, reveals these two sides to her. All that happens in the scene is people call out to her and ask her to join them by their campfire, but she politely refuses and continues on her stroll. Each of Fern’s glances at her fellow nomads—a people and a lifestyle she isn’t sure she wants to accept—feels hesitantly eager, betraying a deep-seated, adventurous desire waiting to burst forth. But each moment between these brief encounters, when Fern silently convinces herself she isn’t ready, is an entire story McDormand tells through held breaths and tempered sighs.

(4/4 stars)
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Written by: Chloé Zhao (screenplay), Jessica Bruder (book)
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells
Running time: 108 mins.

Fern is a woman who holds back, given how much she’s already lost. The film’s opening titles locate the story in time and place (or rather, in a time and place Fern has been forced to leave behind). She was once a resident of Empire, Nevada—ZIP code 89405—a company town built around a gypsum mine in the early 1920s. It was a place that survived even the Great Depression, but when demand for sheetrock fell in the wake of the ’08 crash, Empire all but became a ghost town.

In 2011, its ZIP code was discontinued.

But Empire wasn’t just a company town. It was also the only place Fern and her late husband called home. Nomadland plays out against this indignity, in which people and places and their histories are erased. As a follow-up to Zhao’s two films on Native characters, a people who have suffered similarly across the years, Fern’s story could not feel more quintessentially American.

The film explores the inner lives of “horses put out to pasture by the tyranny of the dollar” (a turn of phrase coined by nomadic mentor Bob Wells, playing a fictionalized version of himself). However, the film isn’t content with merely portraying or exploiting financial misery. Instead, it offers glimpses of a light at the end of the tunnel—a dim light, but one that no doubt beckons—by immersing the viewer in the poetry of the land, which these elderly denizens call home. Although, what “home” even means, to a person and to a collective, isn’t carved in stone. It’s fluid, like water, and sometimes finding it means allowing yourself to float downstream (quite literally in the case of Fern and her escapes into nature).

Frances McDormand and director-writer Chloé Zhao on the set of Nomadland
Frances McDormand and director-writer Chloé Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Photo by Joshua James Richards. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Fern is a character who bristles at the thought of being helped; her rugged individualism feels like a remnant of America’s “bootstraps” work culture, but her every interaction seems to evoke a neighborly, small-town-American politeness. Only her “town” stretches infinitely and in all directions, and what makes Fern and the other nomads “neighbors” is their shared commitment to moving forward on the open road. And so, along her journey, Fern wrestles with the old and the new. Old ways of being, and of remembering. News ways of living, and of finding the shifting boundaries between the self and society, and the self and nature—tasks which prove especially tough for someone so willingly cut off in the wake of her grief.

She lives in the past, with little idea of how to move on. She has lost people and places, and all she has left are temporary trinkets which she imbues with memory. Among them is a set of autumn-themed plates given to her by her father, a collection of props brought to the set by McDormand, who was gifted them by her own father. The film lives and breathes in this tangible reality, in which objects are entangled with deep and personal histories. When those plates inevitably shatter, the impact is devastating.

When we first meet Fern, as she packs up the last pieces of her life in Empire, her short, scruffy, seemingly self-cut hair and her brown jacket over blue evoke a distinct workmanlike image, reminiscent of the blue-collar dissenter in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech painting. The piece was part of Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series, based on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address. As a pioneer of the New Deal, Roosevelt represented hope and promise to many of America’s forgotten in the shadow of the Depression. In the opening scenes of Nomadland, the failure of that promise takes center stage, preceding a story in which the housing crash looms like a cloud, so dark and overbearing that it doesn’t even warrant explicit utterance. When characters introduce themselves, they list their medical debts as casually as they mention the towns they grew up in. Several of them even talk about nearly committing suicide in ’08—or having loved ones who did.

The evocations of Rockwell may or may not be intentional, but the archetypal American promises in his paintings exist deep in the bones of popular culture. They’re well-known both to Americans, and to outsiders like Zhao and myself, who eventually immigrate to the “land of opportunity” in search of these promises. Rockwell is how America sees itself, and so a film investigating that idyllic self-image is bound to chance upon his imagery one way or another.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The third piece in Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series, Freedom From Want (or The Thanksgiving Picture) works its way into the film’s fabric too, when Fern looks back on old family pictures by the light of an oil lantern, alone in her van. She smiles wistfully at a warm and pristine moment from her childhood, in which her family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner, like a scene from an old storybook. It’s framed similarly to Freedom From Want, a high angle with the table in full view and the family gathered around an enormous turkey, centered as a ritual of comfort and contentment. But before long, the harsh reality of the lonely winter around her begins to set in.

Without words, the film laments this America of plenty as a figment of the past. Now, it’s the America of excess and exploitation, as Fern walks through the unending alleys of an enormous Amazon warehouse—so large that its walls are barely in sight—a workplace where she spends several Christmases and New Year’s Eves, at crowded lunch tables by day and alone in her van at night. She no longer belongs to a world of four walls and familial comforts. It feels alien to her, as someone forced to turn her vehicle into a makeshift home.

The question of inequality and how it came to be looms large over characters who live comfortably. When Fern catches up with an old friend who happens to work in real estate, casual chatter about housing prices starts to feel sinister. Through close-ups of Fern’s silent discomfort, the film seems to ask: what sins did these people commit to hold on to their wealth, while others were left to suffer? Even when Fern manages to sit down at an actual family dinner (at the lavish home of someone she meets on the road), she feels out of place. The setting feels illusory, given the harshness she’s seen.

A more honest Thanksgiving portrait of modern America can be seen the next morning, when Fern returns to this dinner table, now devoid of food or people, and sits alone in mournful reflection before hitting the road once more. Nomadland certainly has a political perspective, but it’s one the film elucidates in the form of visual innuendo. It is not, after all, an investigation into how America failed, but rather, into who was failed and how one carries on in the aftermath. And so, the changing relationship between Fern and her surroundings, both natural and human-made, becomes more poignant than any speech or sermon could ever be.

The film’s initial act sees Fern moving from job to job. The way the edit plays with time speaks to how she’s forced to float through life untethered, connected to nothing tangible except her memories. These scenes are short, lasting mere minutes (even if that) before the film sprints forward. But within each brief scene, time feels outstretched, as if we’re being lured into a montage of wait, and of life moving swiftly from one long, painful uncertainty to the next.

One beat in particular stands out: Fern falls asleep in a department store while “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby plays on muffled speakers in the distance. The scene moves on shortly thereafter, but the moment itself seems to last an eternity, as Fern nods off and is jolted awake—like she’s been woken from a dream of long-forgotten comforts—and is soon approached by well-meaning people whose pity she can barely stomach.

When Fern finally makes the decision to explore the nomadic route, the adjustment is a hard one. She doesn’t quite gel with nature or with other people. But she learns to, whether out of choice or necessity. At first, her return to nature is reluctant and melancholy, a result of being abandoned by the “civilized” world. As she settles into her new life, each individual moment—of heartache, of hardship, and of unexpected kindness—rest heavy on the soul.

Zhao takes the reins on the edit for the first time since Songs My Brothers Taught Me. She captures the essence of film’s meandering realism, and the characters’ rendezvous with the elements, via singular moments rather than entire scenes edited for continuity. An avowed admirer of Terrence Malick’s The New World—a lucid dream of American history—Zhao both equals and outdoes him with Nomadland, creating a portrait of America’s present that stands in sharp, unnerving contrast to its lofty promises. These vignettes, in which characters reflect on nature or exchange rustic wisdom, are fleeting, but they ripple outward, and linger long after the film has moved on from them. A brief comment on Fern’s wedding ring, which she hasn’t yet taken off, echoes through the rest of the story as she begins to introspect on how and why she remembers, until finally, she’s forced to confront the weight of her memories.

Director-writer Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland
Director-writer Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

As the film goes on, the cinematography by Joshua James Richards (who shot Zhao’s previous films) captures the gorgeous landscape with an increasingly wide-eyed appreciation. His wide lenses and deep focus make the characters feel at one with nature; the result is simply breathtaking. Meanwhile the music, conceived by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi during walkabouts in the wild, grows more immersive as Fern begins to accept her place in the natural world. Einaudi’s compositions begin as bare-boned piano notes that feel like stripped-down covers of pop ballads, evoking memories of something more grandiose, yet something forgotten—until eventually, they begin to feel whole, rife with their own orchestral strings as Fern immerses herself in nature (both its beauty and its chaos), remaining isolated, but perhaps feeling just a little less lonely.

Nomadland feels like a definitive depiction of post-recession America. Not just as a place, but as a sinking feeling, one that becomes all too real when the film visits a foreclosed factory laden with dust, and a series of abandoned homes. It’s a moment that silently reckons with all that’s been lost. But despite the hardships it portrays, the film’s soulful reflection on time, place and circumstance is the kind you want to step into, and live within, and hold onto for as long as possible. It’s ruthless, but it radiates a healing, comforting glow.

Above all else, Zhao’s masterstroke is the way she captures the contours of people and their stories with the same reverence she has for natural landscapes, connecting moments of fleeting joy and persisting heartache to the overpowering beauty of nature. Her portrait of America feels both devastating and tender. It reveals the ruin wrought by unjust systems, as well as the frolic and celebration of life—even in moments of grief—that keeps people going at the end of the line, as they weave in and out of each other’s stories until they eventually meet again, somewhere down the road.

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Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ Paints a Poetic Portrait of Modern America