Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing cinematic shutdowns throughout this past year, Chloé Zhao’s latest film Nomadland was one of the only movies that I had the pleasure of anticipating throughout 2020. Of course, the film’s release date kept being postponed, so that Nomadland wasn’t even theatrically released until well into 2021. I finally had the chance to watch it this past Friday night when the big multiplex in downtown Boston reopened for the first time since Christmas Day. Fortunately, the movie is screening only in IMAX theaters for its initial run, so I was able to enjoy its fine cinematography on a gigantic screen, which I doubt would have happened in any other year, when those screens would have been reserved for the usual blockbusters and superhero fare. Though as I think we’re all quite aware by now, no blocks around cinemas anywhere in this country are being busted anymore, and perhaps (at least from how dire things look at our present moment) they may never be again.
It’s in that same shellshocked, post-capitalist socioeconomic landscape, actually, that the stark and vital narrative of Nomadland unfolds, as the nomads of the movie’s title (based on Jessica Bruder’s eponymous 2017 non-fiction book) stop and start and scatter their way across the semi-obliterated vastness of the American west. Like Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider, which was among my favorite movies of 2018, Nomadland is a careful and distinctive hybrid of real-life documentary and loosely scripted fiction. Frances McDormand, in a demanding, career-defining performance, stars as Fern, who’d lived and worked for years in Empire, Nevada, a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants that shut down and essentially ceased to exist, having even its zip code discontinued after its sole industry of mining gypsum to manufacture sheetrock closed in 2011, due to lack of demand in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and housing market crisis. Fern then fled and hit the open road, living in her big white outfitted camper van, nicknamed Vanguard. The other middle-aged and older American nomads she encounters along the way, who’d made the same decision after their own lives went awry — and who now work in seasonal shifts at massive, mechanized Amazon warehouses or in cramped and busy kitchens at roadside diners — are the focus of the film and help to provide many of its most deeply moving moments.
McDormand should certainly win another Oscar for this role, a subdued yet tenacious emotional achievement that also doesn’t shy away from the rudimentary physical hardships that Fern must learn to tolerate in her daily life: urinating outdoors in frigid temperatures (one of the earliest images we see of her in the film), being stricken with dysentery and only a plastic bucket in her van as a makeshift toilet, seeing her treasured Autumn Leaf china plates get broken when she has to clean out Vanguard due to an ant infestation. It’s clear why McDormand secured the rights to the film and staked out this role for herself, though I’m not sure any other American actress working today could have or would have done that. And while she’s transfixing to watch in the movie, a film that she carries in every successive scene often just by the subtle calibrations of her gestures and facial expressions, there’s nothing showy or grandstanding about it. Her performance is entirely in service to the story and the importance of the film’s messages about freedom and capitalist exploitation at this particular moment in contemporary American history.
Some of the movie’s key scenes are filmed documentary-style around a campfire, with the transient community of nomads sharing various memories and anecdotes from their lives. One such woman recounts a male colleague who’d worked with her for decades and then was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, only to die one week before his scheduled retirement. Another woman who ends up being a fixture in the film, Linda May, recalls a similar shock and disappointment at discovering only $550 in her Social Security savings account after working for nearly her entire life and struggling to raise her children. These point-blank truths about the inherent corruption of living in a soulless capitalist system are revealed to us as testimonials, and they reminded me of the heart circles at Radical Faeries gatherings that I’ve attended, where people simply sit together and share aloud their feelings about their lives and experiences. Zhao’s empathetic direction (along with the attentive, humanizing cinematography of Joshua James Richards) both dignifies and enriches the stories of the film’s subjects, in a way that makes us feel like they could be, and perhaps even are, our own stories. As Fern connects with certain individuals, we connect with them as well, such as Swankie, an older woman who hangs a black skull-and-crossbones flag on the side of her van because she’s gradually dying from a brain tumor. After bonding with Fern, who looks after Swankie and even cuts her hair, Swankie departs for Alaska, where she sends Fern a video of the cliffside of swallows that she’s returned to see before she dies, hundreds of them who’ve built their mud nests and fly out together in dark murmurations over the water.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Fern is in her van alone late at night, staring at a wallet-sized photograph of her late husband, who we soon learn had himself died a difficult and relatively early death. With just a few changing glances that shift quietly across her face, McDormand conveys their entire relationship in a way that few actors could do. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Fern’s fixed resolve to live “houseless” on the road is a result of her unresolved grief for him, a refusal to move on from a life and a landscape that have been permanently shattered, instead preferring to reside inside that endlessly broken present as a ghost, wondering why the world can’t just return to being the way it was when things were fine. She does receive an opportunity at having a stable new home through another drifter, Dave (David Straithairn, sweetly reliable), whose son and daughter-in-law have just given him his first grandchild, for whom he retreats from living his nomadic life. Fern visits them at their idyllic home and stays in their comfortably appointed guest room, with an open invitation from their family to stay for much longer, but she chooses to return to sleeping in her van instead and then departs early one morning without saying goodbye, after watching Dave and his son play the piano together late at night and silently realizing that she feels like an intruder in their lives.
The subject of suicide arises at two crucial points in the movie. The first is when Linda May tells Fern about the lowest point of her own despair, when she considered turning on the gas and drinking an entire bottle of alcohol, deciding that if she woke up, she’d light a cigarette to blow up everything and end her own life permanently. But compassion took over when Linda May knew she couldn’t do that to her two small dogs, and therefore she couldn’t do that to herself either. The film’s delicately sunlit and purely emotional climax is the second pivotal mention of suicide, when a wise and gray-bearded RV lifestyle guru named Bob Wells shares with Fern how he lost his son five years before, when his son tragically ended his own life at the age of 33. As someone who, at age 47, hasn’t really wanted to be alive for the past 25 years or so now myself, but who has continued to endure that feeling and wander somewhat aimlessly as a kind of living suicide, I related easily to Nomadland, and particularly to that central aspect of the film. I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who can’t relate to that or find it to be self-pitying, and therefore they may not like or might even outright dislike this movie. Maybe they’re the lucky ones.