The director Chloé Zhao’s films have been described as poetic. That could mean that her work seems always to be seeking the sublime: in the wide, luminous stretches of South Dakota’s Badlands, where her first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, take place; in the dancing motions of an injured rodeo rider taming a horse. Poetry is a form that brooks no division between fiction and nonfiction, and Zhao is known for casting nonactors to perform embroidered versions of their own lives, set in their real environments, for her sensitive modern-day (Mid-)Westerns.
Her third film, Nomadland, plants a couple of famous actors among several of the real people that Jessica Bruder depicted in her 2017 book of the same name. Bruder wrote about van-dwelling Americans making the best of economic devastation, mostly older people who, in the wake of the Great Recession, between the dwindling of steady jobs, paltry Social Security payments, and the ballooning of housing costs, found themselves unable to get by. They took to the road, following seasonal gigs around the country, and became, for employers, a cheap, malleable, disposable workforce.
This is how Fern (Frances McDormand) is living. A widow in her early sixties, she has lost her job and community in Empire, Nevada, to a 2011 plant closure, and now she inhabits a customized Ford Econoline she nicknames Vanguard. The movie’s opening scenes show her packing goods in a vast yet claustrophobic Amazon fulfillment center, part of the company’s CamperForce program. Whereas Zhao uses long shots elsewhere to capture nature’s splendors, here they show a different vista, of high, fluorescent-lit metal ceilings dwarfing crowds of hyper-surveilled workers far below, boxed in by yellow crates. Fern’s new life requires toughness and vigilance as it buffets her on swiftly changing currents of emotion. Her face threatens to collapse with the effort not to cry, then stretches taut, alert for danger as she pees outdoors; it goes rigid with concentration as she fixes a radio aerial, then opens to take in a friend, who confides that she’d considered suicide using her propane stove but “just couldn’t do that to” her two dogs. Fern is all delight, after running into someone she used to tutor, when the girl recites back to her some lines from a Macbeth soliloquy. The mood abruptly shifts when the kid says she’s heard that Fern’s now homeless. “Is that true?” Straining against humiliation, Fern musters energy she can ill afford to reassure the girl that “houseless” isn’t the same thing.
On a friend’s invitation, Fern follows warmer weather to Arizona and attends a gathering of “wheel estate” nomads known as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (a real-life annual event featured in Bruder’s book). There, people share food, tools, tips, ideas, and stories. They fix and carry things; they cut each other’s hair. Fern’s path crisscrosses with a few others as they all move around. Shot over six months, the film traces the changing seasons, from a Nebraska beet harvest to a campground in Zhao’s favored part of South Dakota to California’s forests and the Pacific Ocean. There are awkward, grudging encounters, embarrassments, but also moments of lightness and pleasure. Fern dances in a bar, swims naked in a stream, wanders in a vast land-art maze. She meets Dave (David Strathairn), and a somewhat-mutual affection develops. Playing variations on themselves are, among others, a bearded community elder named Bob Wells, who runs the Rendezvous; Linda May, the friend who tells Fern about the gathering, and who plans to build herself a sustainable off-grid dwelling on a small patch of land; and a woman named Swankie, who castigates Fern for being ill-equipped for the conditions, before offering help and comradeship.
These nomads are attuned to the natural beauty they encounter and a sense of joining an American tradition; roaming has become a choice they take pride in, even if a painfully circumscribed one. An obvious danger here is of romanticizing deprivation, as the film balances composing an emotionally satisfying story against chronicling in detail a dark reality. After all, it’s not just the “workampers” who play themselves; the Amazon warehouse does, too. In portraying survivors of a disaster as venturesome heroes, you may risk that flattering light falling on and softening the disaster itself—especially to be avoided with a disaster that, like this one, is not natural but man-made.
Nomadland treats its subjects with respect and curiosity. Their misfortunes are not used to objectify or other them, as often happens in movies about an impoverished subculture. Of course, you could say that the film (unlike, for instance, Hillbilly Elegy) relies for its drama and melancholy on the sense that many of these characters are what’s sometimes called the nouveau poor—they had expectations for a more rewarding future that have not been met. There’s a constant awareness of vulnerability. Fern’s stomach suddenly revolts, and we see her shitting in her bucket in the van. Dark blood or dirt sluices off her body when she’s managed to access a shower. Overnight parking very explicitly does not include the right to sleep there. When Dave finds a relatively cushy stint in a Wall Drug kitchen, there’s a sign on the door that warns: FOOD PRODUCT THEFT WILL BE CAUSE FOR IMMEDIATE DISMISSAL.
Yet, as it progresses, the film becomes far more about grief than about poverty. Fern lives this way, it emerges, not primarily for economic reasons. She tells Bob she had chosen to stay in her dying town after losing her husband, Beau, because, since they were childless and he had no family, “If I left it would be like he never existed.” Her description of what she had loved about that place is also telling, suggesting her desire for escape from ordinary life preceded the van: Their house was at the edge of town, and looked out “at this huge open space. It was just desert, desert, desert all the way to the mountains—there was nothing in our way.”
Fern’s commitment to living on her own terms goes back still further. At one point, she appears to be facing total collapse: Her van breaks down, and a mechanic recommends, given the mileage, that she spend the money on a new vehicle rather than try to patch it up. “I live in there,” she tells him. “It’s my home.” She calls her sister for cash to cover the repair: “I’m being stubborn? Well, I think you’re being a bitch!” When she visits the sister and her husband for the loan, in the parallel universe of their comfortable suburban house, it’s clear that they don’t understand her insistence on staying outside. The husband sees a threatening sort of challenge in it—“we’re not all in a position to just chuck everything and hit the road,” he says at dinner—while the sister feels hurt, abandoned. Fern had, we learn, left home as early as she could, marrying Beau months after meeting him, and settling in a remote place. “It’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting,” her sister says. But she also defends Fern from her husband: “What the nomads are doing is not that different than what the pioneers did.”
The tension between examining a symptom of broader catastrophe and celebrating the way a few resourceful, freedom-loving individuals have responded to it can be felt in Jessica Bruder’s book (subtitled Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) as well. In her afterword, Bruder notes that most Americans facing the chasm between what they can make and what it costs to survive will not take to the roads: “Those who do are analogous to what biologists call an ‘indicator species’—sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem.”
It’s a tension that’s perhaps inevitably heightened by Zhao’s poetic style of truth-telling: When you aspire to show a place and people as they are while also constructing a work of the imagination, your inventions draw the eye, raising the question of whether the purposes they serve are purely dramatic or aesthetic. Brady Jandreau, the charismatic young star of The Rider who’d suffered a devastating head injury, provided Zhao with the living heart of her movie; by contrast, Fern, reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 to a fellow wanderer who’d borrowed her lighter, is a character Zhao has chosen to make up. Nomadland is a beautiful, humanistic film, confirming Zhao’s gift for finding lyricism in real pain and vice versa. Given its source material, its visual grandeur, and the moment in which it appears, I suspect it will be treated as something more representative, more socially significant than that.