In theaters December 4
A fascinating hybrid of fiction and documentary film, director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland chronicles one woman’s late-in-life road trip through the sunset of the American Dream. It’s a new kind of Western, hard and beautiful.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a 60-something substitute teacher and recent widow who finds herself—suddenly, shockingly—homeless. The Great Recession has gutted Fern’s small Nevada town, and she can’t afford her own life anymore. With no job, no pension, and no safety net, she’s out of options. So Fern throws a mattress into her van and joins the swelling ranks of America’s new itinerant workers, chasing seasonal employment in beet farms and Amazon fulfillment centers.
Zhao’s masterful film is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Zhao maintains the documentary approach by putting people from the book—real American nomads—in several of the supporting roles. The film was shot verité-style at locations around the West, including one of those colossally depressing Amazon warehouses.
There are a lot of sunset scenes, and that’s on purpose. Nomadland is an elegy of sorts, a withering indictment of terminal-stage capitalism, but nothing is overt or directly stated. The economic ruthlessness that has upended these lives is backgrounded, in soft focus. Fern and her adopted community simply try to survive, one day at a time, on the fringes of a society that has discarded them. It’s telling, I think, that it took a Beijing-born filmmaker to provide us with this perspective, this moment of painful clarity about our country.
McDormand’s work is nothing less than sorcery. It’s a big ask to put a recognizable screen performer in a film full of actual people living their actual lives, but McDormand pulls it off. She communicates an entire biography in two hours of screen time. Her performance is the essential bridge that transports the audience into the world of the film.
The best and weirdest twist: In certain golden moments, Nomadland makes the nomadic life seem undeniably appealing. We feel the comfort of real community and the intoxicating freedom of life on the road. Fern has stumbled into a genuine American counterculture, liberated from “the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar,” as one character says. The future in America is a very uncertain place. Who knows where we’ll all end up?
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