There are few better feelings than unexpectedly meeting an old friend and dropping everything to spend time and catch up with them. Time seems to shift, conflating past with present in the most magical way. It’s in this spirit, one of reflection and platonic human connection, that Nomadland makes its home, and it does so with such perfection that not only does it provide that unique, easy-going warmth, but it becomes something of an old friend itself, a film you’re at one in awe of and at complete ease with. Chloe Zhao’s last film, The Rider, was a masterwork of empathy, and Nomadland, somehow, is even better.
Working from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book about the rise in nomadic lifestyles in America following the 2008 financial crash, Zhao mixes Hollywood stars with real nomads playing themselves to tell the story of Fern (Frances McDormand). Fern has recently lost her husband after he was laid off from his longtime employer, and so hits the road in an RV with nothing but her essentials.
The obvious route for Nomadland would be to be a ‘road movie’ and, by necessity, it sometimes is that. But there’s a lot of stillness here too, as Fern takes breaks to rest in makeshift nomad communities and sometimes look for steady work, generally taking seasonal gigs (heading to farms for harvest time, working at an Amazon warehouse at Christmas etc). This slowing down allows Zhao and McDormand to dive deep into Fern’s character while giving time for the real nomads to tell their stories.
I’m not sure there’s a filmmaker currently working who offers more compassion and dignity to their subjects than Zhao. Every close up and every long take of a nomad telling their story is mesmerising and often deeply moving. Stories about lost loved ones will drive you to floods of tears while fireside chats fill you with warmth and joy. You might even learn some survival skills, Fern receiving good-natured lessons from more experienced nomads every time she makes a stop.
The non-professional cast are directed with extraordinary skill by Zhao, perfectly balancing authenticity with service to the story, and it’s an enormous testament to McDormand that she, one of America’s most recognisable and accomplished actors, never feels like an intruder in this world. As Fern mucks in with a series of odd jobs, McDormand conveys through subtle physicality what would take a lesser actor monologues upon monologues. Her budding romance with fellow rover Dave (David Strathairn, the only other Movie Star in Nomadland and giving an incredibly generous performance) is told mostly through gesture, but it’s as affecting a love story as you could hope to see on screen.
Fern’s world is both enormous and tiny. With the vast open spaces of Midwest and Southwest America as her home, she travels from gorgeous deserts to wintry desolation, but the nomad community is never far behind. Unforgettable faces drop in and out of the story, from a young cowboy who could have been lifted right out of The Rider to a Santa-esque tutor whose kindness and melancholy will splinter your heart, and they’re always as welcome a sight as your own friends. The landscapes are filmed beautifully, with dizzying rock formations giving way to great plains and misty woodlands, often shot with a stunning sunset in the backdrop. The lives of Nomadland’s characters are hard, and Zhao doesn’t let us forget that a lot of them were driven to this lifestyle not by a calling but by the USA’s brutal form of capitalism, but their freedom and connection to the earth can be enviable, nonetheless.
A sparingly used but beautiful soundtrack keeps us company during Fern’s lonelier hours on the road, and the tone Zhao ultimately strikes is one of great hope. Against the misery wrought by market forces and America’s callous acceptance of those forces as some sort of malevolent god, her characters push back with laughter and fond memories, finding strength in companionship and purpose in their restlessness. This is the sort of film to renew your faith in the human spirit.