Chloe Zhao’s third film, Nomadland, straddles the border between fiction and documentary. It revolves around a fictional character, Fern, played by Frances McDormand, who is forced to leave her home town of Empire, Nevada, after the local gypsum plant shuts down. Fern loses her home, and decides to adopt an itinerant lifestyle, working seasonal jobs, and living out of her van. However, the gypsum plant in Empire really did close down, while the film is based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name, which focuses on the rise of vandwelling seniors in the wake of the Great Recession. Apart from Fern, and Dave, a man she meets on the road, played by David Strathairn, most of the cast in Nomadland are non-professionals – people encountered by Zhao and her small crew as they took to the road themselves to shoot the film. Several of them are well known in the vandwelling community, and play a large role in Bruder’s book, including Bob Wells, the guru of recent vandwellers, along with Linda May and Swankie, two prominent senior women in the vandwelling scene.
The first part of Nomadland establishes the basic rhythms of vandwelling. Fern works at an Amazon fulfilment centre in the winter, and then moves south in the summer, taking on a variety of different jobs, while also making time for key events in the vandwelling community – especially the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, in Quartzsite, Arizona, organised by Bob Wells. We learn that there’s a big difference between being homeless and being houseless, as Fern adapts to any number of circumstances, and builds a steadily expanding network of friends and acquaintances, while mourning the death of her husband several years before.
From here, Zhao expands the scope of the film further, taking in the texture of Middle America, but also the ethos of the vandwelling lifestyle. For many seniors, vandwelling seems to offer a community beyond family. Many of them do have actual families, but they all appear to have become irrelevant within their own families. Bob Wells also sees vandwelling as a way of moving beyond the “tyranny of the dollar” via an economy based on trade and solidarity. It’s not all lectures, though, since we also learn about tips for the road, from basic survivalism to what one vandweller describes as the “tin commandments of stealth parking.”
Since this vandwelling community is so strong, Nomadland is never dour. Certainly, there are bleak moments, and there’s no doubt that we’re in a precarious world, but Zhao and McDormand suffuse it all with a sprightliness that precludes pity. There’s ample room here for the eccentricity and excitement of roadside America, along with the breathtaking lyricism and mercurial sublimity of the American highway. I can’t recall a film since Paris, Texas that was so poised in its montage sequences as Nomadland, which is compassionate above all else. While Fern is often alone, she never quite feels lonely, since the film gathers her into its flow and momentum, which crests and peaks beautifully, so that the next stop along the road never feels too far away. Long scenes go by when the camera just follows her, staying close to the ground to throw her into resilient relief as she strides across, or into, the setting sun.
This allows Zhao to move beyond the small-scale interpersonal conflicts that drive most Hollywood films, and instead immerse us in the rhythm of long term, big-scale, seasonal relationships. Vandwellers like Bob, Linda and Swankie all speak and move with the familiarity of friends who are used to embracing each other periodically across great swathes and space and time, which in turn gives the film a cosmic scale too. In one scene, we shift from Fern visiting the Wall Drug Dinosaur in South Dakota, and reflecting on the scale of prehistoric life, to an astronomy session where she looks at the light that left the star of Vega back in 1987.
This cosmic scale often makes it seem like Nomadland is excavating American history as well, taking us down through the strata of all those wanderers and travellers that have been restless to make the American experience something grander and greater than it appears to be. Rocks percolate their way throughout the narrative – Fern gets a job at a rock store, meets up with Dave in the rock formation in Badlands National Park, revels over Swankie’s rock collection, accepts a rock from Dave as proof of his love, swaps a lighter for a rock that turns out to be a dinosaur stone, and finally throws rocks back into a fire in memory of Swankie, “because she loved rocks.” These rocks accumulate in the wake of Fern’s travels, disrupting the American Dream enough to restore its potency, but also standing for nothing other than themselves – as concrete particulars that she holds in her hands to affirm the here and now.
While it’s largely driven by beautiful rhythms, both seasonal and cosmic, Nomadland also contains a twist of sorts. At first, the vandwellers seem to be totally off-grid, until we gradually realise that most of them do have “roots” in the traditional sense, but have strayed away from them. Even more surprisingly, it turns out that Fern had a stable middle-class upbringing, and has a sister who is modestly wealthy, since she’s married to a successful real estate investor. Most surprising, Fern’s sister is a decent person – she lends Fern money, pleas with Fern to move in with her family, and confesses that it broke her heart when Fern left home to live in Empire with her husband, especially since she remained in Empire after he passed.
Rather than simply going off grid, then, vandwellers here embody an increasing overlap between the precariat and the middle class – or a fluid space between middle-class stability and precarity. You sense that most of these travellers started off with regular middle-class trajectories that were somehow dislocated, displaced or otherwise sent awry, as much by their own sensibilities as external factors. While nomadism is partly a necessity, it’s also partly a choice, as aging baby boomers reach back to the restless mobility of the 70s as a way of dealing with the downward mobility of post-recession America. For all the austerity of Fern’s seasonal work, then, there’s also something utopian about her passage. In one of the most moving sequences, she spends a weekend with Dave and his family at their house in the Pacific Northwest. The morning after Dave asks her to stay for good, she gets up early, wanders around the house alone, and then flees this brief glimpse of domesticity, driving to the nearby cliffs, the extremity of the American continent, and dancing wildly into the wind.
In this moment, Fern seems to exhaust the westward movement of all those 70s roadtrippers – and their dream of recreating the romance of the frontier, but with more wisdom this time around. With nowhere further west to go, she circles back to her original house in Empire, a structure that encapsulates this need for homeliness and freedom at the same time. As she confides to Dave, this house was modest, but backed onto a huge expanse of land, meaning she never felt too shut in. In the final scene, she wanders through the empty rooms, and then walks out the back door, returning again to the world of seasonal mobility, but with a new sense of continuity with her old life. The penultimate shot of her through the back door recalls The Searchers, but with the awareness that the utopian frontier of westward expansion can now only survive in a relentless mobility, in a searching for all that is not quite here and now.
Hence the final perfect touch of the film – Zhao shifting from this shot of the vast world beyond Fern’s door, to a mobile shot of the van as it sweeps along the road between the mountains. We cut to black midway through this shot, not unlike the closing shot of Paris, Texas, allowing us to cherish the momentum of the road, and the buoyancy of Fern’s resilience, with no need for conventional closure. Few recent films have painted human nature on such an epic scale, and with such a cosmic generosity, while remaining grounded in the precarity and austerity of the present. In a conversation with a young cowboy, Fern spontaneously recites a Shakespearean sonnet, and in that moment I realised that Shakespeare had never felt so alive to me, or so vital. Like the characters in Shakespeare’s romances, Fern seems poised in the midst of a mercurial and melancholy journey – like McDormand herself, who captured one moment in that voyage in Olive Kitteridge, and finds a different moment here, a new kind of peace within the tempests of later life and career: “One of the things I most love about this life is that there is no goodbye – just down the road.”