NYFF: Nomadland (2020)-Reviewed

(Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

See you down the road.

Those words ring out across Chloé Zhao’s latest epic, Nomadland (based on the non-fiction novel Nomadland: Surviving in America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder) , like a clarion call for all lost souls. It’s a sentiment that’s expressed by a group of wanderers across the US that never quite means “goodbye” but instead, a set of words to live by. Many of these nomads have set out on the road in the wake of the Great Recession. They’ve lost jobs, homes, family and in some cases, their entire towns. Others have given up on a reliance on capitalism and, in their golden years, have picked up and set out to see the country. Whatever their reasons, the road and each other is all they have. They hold onto the idea that down the road, they’ll be waiting for each other. And down that “final road” maybe the loved ones that they’ve lost. 

At the center of it all is Fern (Frances McDormand). When we meet her, she’s already out on the road living in her van. Her husband has passed, her job is gone and the town she lived in has become nothing but ghosts. The mine that essentially ran that town, Empire, Nevada, is long gone taking jobs, houses and people with it. Now, out on the road, she finds herself in and out of nomadic communities, each of them on their own paths but always sharing the open road. 

Zhao’s painting of America and its people is breathtakingly humane. Never talking down to her subjects, exploiting them or mocking them, her films are a celebration of the people on the margins. Her insistence on naturalism helps with that celebration, giving a voice to people who may be otherwise unheard.  2018’s excellent The Rider cast a real life rodeo star and his family as its leads. Here, outside of McDormand and David Straitharn (playing Dave, Fern’s kinda sorta love-interest), Zhao populates the film with real life people. 

People like Bob Wells, who acts as a leader of sorts, and hosts a get-together called “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.” People like Swankie and Linda May, road warriors who take turns mentoring Fern on her own journey. These are people who live this life outside of the film and in any other filmmaker’s hands, this could feel either exploitative or too much like a documentary, lovely but stiff. In Zhao’s hands, they’re the lifeblood of a rich tapestry of the American Midwest and West. They’re the vibrant authenticity that catapults the film to mesmerizing heights. You’re not just falling in love with characters, but very real people and their very real journeys. This makes a fantastic companion piece to this year’s astonishing Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets which accomplishes a similar feat. 

(Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

McDormand herself is a revelation. In a career of outstanding and singular performances, this might be her best yet. In inhabiting Fern, she captures such a specific kind of person. The fearlessness of embarking on a journey of self mixed with the trepidation of doing so partly because you’ve been given little-to-no choice. McDormand plays Fern with a fiery earnestness that’s so unique to her filmography, you’re almost taken aback. She’s a bit awkward, a bit stubborn but such a lovely and kind person. Her bristling at attempts to be reached out to belie a yearning for community. McDormand feels not at all out of place among the real people in this film. She’s never “too big” for the film. It’s a true chameleonic performance without any prosthesis or makeup. After seeing The Rider, she reportedly said “who the fuck is Chloé Zhao?” and sought her out on her next project. That desire to work with her and her innate curiosity brings out the performance of a lifetime. 

Most striking in a film so gorgeous and lovely (DP Joshua James Richards once again capture’s Zhao’s America in rich and elegant purples, pinks and blues, all bumping up against the browns and tans of the desert), is Zhao’s insistence on humanity being the most pertinent fact about someone’s life. The idea that homelessness or being unhoused not being someone’s defining trait is baked into the fiber of Nomadland. The important distinction being that Zhao never glamorizes this life. At her core, she’s a deeply empathetic filmmaker, maybe more so than anyone we have, and she understands the fine line between idealizing a life this hard and simply presenting it on its own terms. 

A long, single take shot early on in the film gets this across so beautifully. Fern, making her way through the current encampment she’s staying in, interacting with the people around her. In this shot you see people getting ready for their day, bustling in the background. You see a world that requires a daily toll of self and physical well being. But through it all, Fern is smiling. And again, no glamorization is happening here. This is just Fern’s life as is, it may not be every nomadic experience, but it's hers. She knows she’s going to make it because of what’s waiting for her down the road. 

(Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

It’s become gauche to compare every movie released at this time to current events but it’s impossible not to see similarities. It’s also impossible not to think about about the daily dread we currently inhabit. This takes place not too long after the last recession and in many ways, America has been hit even harder. The dead towns we see in Zhao’s film are becoming common once again, if they ever left at all. Tens of millions are out of work and losing their homes. Nomadland doesn’t so much as offer a picture of the past but of an America that could become increasingly familiar. People popping in here and there for a few months at a time just to make ends meet. 

In this world, Zhao presents a group of people that, despite hardship and devastation, are always there for one another. A mobile community, existing as a whole even when it’s spread across the country. Nomadland lingers in the mind not just because of McDormand or its mesmerizing imagery but because of its intense love of humanity. It’s a picture of the America that could be if we just got our shit together and stopped being so selfish. That despite circumstances, if you need a pot holder and I need a can opener, we know we’ve got each other’s backs. I hope that America still exists, somewhere down the road. 

-Brandon Streussnig