Nomadland finds beauty on the rugged, ruthless open road

Chloé Zhao’s triple Oscar-winner follows Frances McDormand’s van-dwelling nomad Fern from one chance encounter to the next, through the mythical landscapes of America’s badlands.

28 April 2021

By Beatrice Loayza

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Nomadland is streaming on Disney+ from 30 April 2021.

Nomadland, the third feature from Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Songs My Brothers Taught Me), captures the allure of backcountry wandering without the bohemian artifice; the struggles of impoverished drifters without the poverty porn. The story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman living out of her van and chasing temp work in different parts of the country, the film essentially plays like a series of vignettes and transitions that convey our protagonist’s rootlessness. Friends and places come and go like the seasons. Work and the effort to find it dictates the ebb and flow of the nomad’s life. There’s a curious, restless quality to the film and its dynamic camera, which often trails Fern from behind as she seemingly forges ahead into new territory.

Through the lens of cinematographer Joshua James Richards, nature is magisterial, otherworldly, healing. Fern communes with enormous, abstract rock formations doused in violet sunset; great, gravelly plains that seem to stretch out to infinity; lush redwoods that feel like remnants of the prehistoric age. The effect is practically Malickian, though Zhao’s strain of spirituality is rooted in a more grounded, empathetic understanding of human nature and its coping mechanisms.

Frances McDormand as Fern and David Straithern as Dave in Nomadland

Loosely adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 work of nonfiction, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s Golden Lion / BAFTA / Oscar winner blends fiction and reality by employing a cast of mostly non-professionals – actual modern nomads in many cases – to play dramatically rendered versions of themselves.

At its centre is McDormand, one of the few bona fide Hollywood stars who can pull off humble, ragged characters without magically transforming into an unrecognisable version of herself. A victim of the 2008 recession and a recent widower, Fern reacts to her new solitude and economic hardship by embracing the possibility of an otherwise – a life on the open road, freedom from the strictures of modern bourgeois existence. “I’m not homeless,” Fern explains to a young woman she once tutored. “I’m just houseless.” With a righteous twinkle in her eyes, Fern wants others to know her lifestyle is a personal choice. When they express concern – an old friend offers her a place to stay, a stranger points the way to a local church that provides food and shelter – Fern insists she prefers her van with an air of indignation. Perhaps she feels regret, but she’ll never show it.

A newbie to the wandering lifestyle, Fern attends the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of fellow itinerants led by nomad guru Bob Wells. Here, one of the film’s strongest elements comes through: its attention to oral storytelling and the mesmerising power of the spoken word. Over a campfire, the roamers swap stories and commiserate, forging a palpable sense of community and mutual recognition. At another point in the film, Fern’s friend Swankie confesses that she was recently diagnosed with cancer, but is choosing to forgo hospitalisation in order to live out her last days in nature. It’s a rousing, defiant monologue that presents the nomadic lifestyle as a challenge, however irrational and potentially tragic, to society’s slippery standards of the good life.

Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland

The nomadic way offers freedom, beauty and connection to the Earth, yet, as one Rubber Tramp leader puts it, “You gotta learn how to take care of your shit.” She’s referring to the literal task of disposing of faeces, but the wisdom extends to the nitty-gritty of van-living in general and its emotional toll. Fern deals with ant infestations, severely cold weather, broken machinery and – most achingly – loneliness. Dave (David Strathairn), a sweet drifter with a crush on Fern, eases into her life, and eventually offers her a chance at conventional stability – rendering the nomad’s existential and economic dilemma as a romantic ultimatum is a reductionist cop-out.

Nomadland is an undeniably rousing experiment, but its insights into labour in the 21st century, and the exploitation of an older generation of Americans, lack force and clarity. At the very beginning of the film, Fern is employed by Amazon’s CamperForce programme, which provides base wages and free parking space to seasonal workers in their 60s and 70s. In 2020, Amazon doubled its profits during a global pandemic, which makes Zhao’s easygoing depiction of workers exploited by the company feel rather toothless. That the film aims to capture the ways in which a kind of working-class American outsider struggles without fully addressing the conditions of that struggle casts over it the shadow of a questionable liberal naivete.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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