Written & Directed by Chloe Zhao
It’s tempting to single out 2020 as an exceptionally rough year, but I argue that life for millions of people has been a generational cycle of struggle for as long as anyone can remember. The United States is caught in a cycle of economic recessions that batter people working in the industrial & service industries worse and worse. Writer Jessica Bruder detailed the American subculture of older workers who live in a perpetual state of migration, taking rough menial seasonal labor while living out of RVs and vans. This community first gained prominence in the wake of the 2008 recession, which saw swaths of homeowners losing their homes due to inhumane business practices. Her book details these people’s tragedies and triumphs breaking their backs to make ends meet and keep traveling up the road to the next spot. Most importantly, it highlights how American corporations have made this migrant labor a key component in their business model.
Chloe Zhao has taken the book and used its anecdotes to create a fictional woman who could very easily be one of these nomads. Fern (Frances McDormand) loses her job in Empire, Nevada, in 2011 after the US Gypsum factory, which made sheetrock, shuts down. The devastation to the community so vast that the entire zip code is dissolved so that Empire no longer exists officially. Her husband, also a worker at the factory, passed away shortly before the closing, so now Fern has no ties to this place and begins living in her van. Over time she augments the automobile to serve her purposes and makes a reasonably comfy place to live inside its walls. Nights are still bitter cold depending on where she ends up, and work takes her all over the United States’ western half.
Along the way, she meets others like Linda, Swankie, and David (David Strathairn). Fern learns a lot from these people, especially about finding joy in these harsh circumstances. They have found some solace in not being tied down to a single place, expected to engage in a monotonous grind. The jobs they find are not glamorous, but there is some peace knowing they won’t do them forever but move onto the next one. In discussion with Bob Mills, the real-life founder of the Rubber Tire Round-Up, a gathering for these nomads, he explains to Fern that there are no goodbyes in this community because sooner or later, you see them again down the road. And if you don’t see them again in this life, you can be sure you’ll see them in the next.
Fern lives in a deeply conflicted state. She knows her life is a struggle that is wearing her down, but over time, she learns how to better adapt to being a nomad through the advice of her friends. At one point, she has a flat tire and implores Swankie for help, who chastises her for not having a spare, explaining that she could have been completely alone and she needs to prepare for any eventuality. Even though we spend a small amount of time with Swankie, we learn a lot about this nomadic way of thinking through her. For this elderly woman, she has found profound fulfillment in becoming closer to nature. She describes encounters with a cliffside full of swallows and watching a family of moose crossing a river in Alaska and that in these moments, she could have died feeling fulfilled.
Nomadland also shows how not everyone in this lifestyle is choosing it. While some, like Swankie, see little opportunities left for them because of age and illness, we have David, who feels conflicted about this life. He certainly fancies Fern and suggests they travel around together, but she is still not through fully grieving her husband, which symbolizes the loss of what she thought life would be. David was a deadbeat dad, and at one point, his adult son comes back into his life, pulling him out of the nomad lifestyle. Fern also encounters family, her estranged sister, who lives in the suburbs and is happily married to a real estate agent. A discussion of the housing market with friends at a backyard barbeque leads to a tense exchange between Fern and her brother in law.
Chloe Zhao is a filmmaker with profound empathy and the ability to accentuate the natural beauty of landscapes others might see as bleak and barren. In both this picture and The Rider, she makes the setting feel almost magical. Additionally, her use of real people who live this life helps bring the audience into the lifestyle. Everyone, except Fern and David, are real people engaged in a nomad lifestyle, and Zhao gives space for them to talk and share their stories. Zhao isn’t interested in being bombastic or melodramatic; she plans out her shots for the most significant impact but doesn’t bog her films down with unnecessary exposition.
I would go as far as to argue that Zhao is in a prime position to inherit Terence Malick’s role in cinema when he retires or passes. Like Malick, she focuses on people’s relation to their natural environment and creates visual poems rather than plot-driven pictures. This is why I am not too keen on her directorial work on the upcoming Marvel film The Eternals. Marvel has a pattern of hiring small-budget indie directors and forcing them to erase all aspects of their personal style to fit the bland, uninteresting cookie cutter of those superhero pictures. I know it wouldn’t be a good business decision to let a director make a meditative introspective film poem about superheroes, but on the other hand, wouldn’t that be a welcome change of pace?