“Nomadland” is the kind of movie that could go very wrong. With Frances McDormand as its star alongside a cast real-life nomads, in lesser hands it might look like cheap wish fulfillment or showboating at its most gratuitous. Instead, director Chloé Zhao works magic with McDormand’s face and the real world around it, delivering a profound rumination on the impulse to leave society in the dust.
Zhao previously directed “The Rider” and “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” dramas that dove into marginalized experiences with indigenous non-actors in South Dakota. “Nomadland” imports that fixation with sweeping natural scenery to a much larger tapestry and a different side of American life. Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” the movie follows McDormand as Fern, a soft-spoken widow in her early 60s who hits the road in her van, and just keeps moving. The movie hovers with her, at times so enmeshed in her travels that it practically becomes a documentary.
Set in 2011, “Nomadland” opens with Fern leaving the nascent ghost town of Empire, Nev. after a sheetrock plant shuts town and the zip code is discontinued. At first, she enrolls in an Amazon CamperForce program designed to tap RV-based retirees for work. (McDormand actually worked in an Amazon factory for these scenes and they share DNA with Brett Story’s documentary short “CamperForce,” which focuses on an elderly couple that settles into the program.) When the paycheck can’t sustain Fern, she finds herself hurtling deeper into the complex ecosystem of life on the road.
The movie’s fascinating centerpiece involves an actual gathering of RV dwellers known as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, overseen by nomadic guru Bob Wells (who plays himself). In short order, Fern is watching “beginner nomad” videos on YouTube and listening to proto-socialist lectures about “the tyranny of the dollar” alongside other 60-plus pariahs keen on embracing their liberated routine.
The golden desert curves around them from every direction, but “Nomadland” doesn’t pretend that Fern has gone on a mystical trip to Burning Man. Life on the move is tough, and Zhao reveals some of the most unglamorous details on that front: Fern pees on the side of the road, shits into a bucket, and one point gets stranded with a flat. She’s engaged in a delicate dance with the pressure to stabilize her life — lost at sea and grasping for a paddle, but always resisting the impulse to paddle to the shore.
A world apart from the foul-mouthed avenger of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDormand turns Fern into a reluctant adventurer who oscillates from bursts of frustration to solemn asides, as her travels come to embody that constant prevarication. A former English teacher who bumps into one of her old students on the road (“Still doing that van thing?” the kid’s mother asks), Fern has a firm grasp of the literary dimension to her struggle, and that’s all the information necessary to grasp the romanticism she chases against dire odds. Her face tells the story so well that by the time she visits relatives who fill in details of her backstory, there’s little to explain.
At the RTR, Fern bumps into Dave (David Strathairn, the movie’s only other professional actor), whose appearance threatens to derail “Nomadland” with a shoddy meet-cute twist. A divorced dad fleeing from his family for other reasons, Dave embodies a number of clichés — but Fern’s disinterest in his advances leads the way. As the movie allows her to keep him at bay, their relationship doesn’t hijack the story. Dave comes and goes from Fern’s life, allowing her to contemplate the potential of settling down just enough to recognize why she’s moved past it.
“Nomadland” juggles a complex tone: It celebrates the vast scenery of a forgotten America, while acknowledging the wistful undercurrents of the people wandering through it. Ludovico Einaudi’s plaintive score drifts in and out as cinematographer Joshua James Richards follows Fern through expansive outdoor scenery as the emptiness takes on poetic ramifications. It could sink into the hackneyed concept of life as a journey more than destination, but Zhao’s understated screenplay (which turns on the passing observations of the real nomads Fern meets) resists pressure for heavy-handed revelations.
Instead, the movie often operates as a non-narrative character study, and many of its more textured moments could work just as well as a multiscreen museum installation. Fear not: “Nomadland” is still a real movie, with powerful bursts of anger and sorrow as Fern grows frustrated by her limited options and comes mighty close to exploiting the generosity around her. Though the spirit of Terrence Malick is prominent in Zhao’s lyrical style, “Nomadland” also calls to mind Ken Loach’s kitchen-sink realism for its depiction of lower-class angst clattering against the ambivalence of capitalism (consider the plight of the protagonist of “I, Daniel Blake”), not to mention Kelly Reichert’s visions of wayfaring loners (imagine Michelle Williams’ wanderer from “Wendy and Lucy,” all grown up and still no place to go).
Above all, it shows that Zhao (who somehow made the upcoming Marvel movie “Eternals” after shooting this) excels at deconstructing mainstream conceptions of the American dream by reveling in the faces it ignores. While Fern carries every scene, Zhao frequently allows her unorthodox supporting cast to take charge. At the RTR, Fern bonds with an elderly woman (Charlene Swankie, a total discovery) who delivers a remarkable monologue about her mortality so staggering in its details that it turns into a short film on its own terms.
“Nomadland” relishes the nomads’ expansive universe, emphasizing the contrast between gaining freedom from society while feeling estranged at the same time. Ultimately, Zhao’s screenplay doesn’t repudiate Fern’s choices: The movie churns through a familiar saga of a woman who grows tired of her surroundings, but casts aside the pressure to conform to the traditional beats of that plight.
Fern’s story unfolds in small doses, never lingering in a single dilemma because Fern can only bother with it for so long before she’s ready to move on. At one point, Wells tells Fern that he never says goodbye to his nomadic peers, only “See you down the road.” Anyone waiting for a big moment won’t find one here: As Fern drives on, the movie embodies that line as a mission statement.
“Nomadland” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Searchlight releases it theatrically on Friday, December 4.
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