Director: Chloé Zhao
Screenwriter: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand
In 1957, author and Beat Generation legend Jack Kerouac released “On The Road”, a novel that would come to be regarded as one of the most essential pieces of American literature ever written. The book is a loose fictionalisation of Kerouac’s time spent travelling across the United States, in which he chronicled his experiences of the places he passed through and the people he came to know – thus creating a revealing illustration of life in the margins of society. He wrote: ‘the road must eventually lead to the whole world’, because to Kerouac, being on the road wasn’t about arriving at a specific destination, it was about the journey, and the little pockets of life he found along the way. Years later, and after the hullabaloo surrounding the book quietened down, Kerouac expressed grief for the road of his past, believing that American commercialism had destroyed the nomadic lifestyle of road life. However, with her third feature film Nomadland, screenwriter-director Chloé Zhao gets back on the highway and discovers that the road lives on, as do the people who live upon it.
Nomadland – based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name – looks upon a generation of Americans who have become ‘houseless’ following an economic crash. At the centre of the story is Fern (Frances McDormand), a sixty-something-year-old widow who has moved into a ramshackle van – affectionately named Vanguard – following the loss of not only her job and home, but her entire town. Fern was once a resident of Empire, Nevada, a place – the movie warns us in its opening title card – that no longer exists. The real-life 2011 closure of a Gypsum mine in Empire effectively rendered the place a ghost town. With the lifeblood of the town vanished, the people of Empire trickled away, and eventually, the state discontinued Empire’s ZIP-code. Although the shell of the town still exists, the place is as barren and empty as Pripyat, Ukraine.
Fern works seasonal work wherever she can get it: Amazon distribution in Nevada, camp-ground host in the Badlands National Park, burger flipper in a restaurant not too far away from Mount Rushmore. The paychecks provide her with enough money to keep food in her stomach and petrol in the tank, but the idea of tethering herself to one place full-time just doesn’t cut it for Fern: her itch for the road and its endless possibilities always wins out. Fern is clearly in mourning for the life she once knew in Empire, but her new life on the road is far from a tragedy. In fact, there is an entire community of people who prefer a nomadic lifestyle, and Zhao brings them into the forefront of her film.
Nomadland is essentially a quasi drama come documentary, as Zhao moulds her narrative around the non-professional actors populating her film. There are Linda May and Swankie (as themselves) who teach Fern (a newbie nomad compared to them) everything she needs to know about road-life: how to mend a puncture, how to keep a tidy paint job, which kind of bucket to defecate in, etc. Linda May turns Fern onto the teachings of nomad guru Dave Wells (played by himself), and a whole community of like-minded vagabonds, road-dwellers and hippies. They all have their reasons for being on the road; we get to hear some of them in an AA style confessional around a campfire: some have suffered substantial loss, some simply could not afford to live any other way, some prefer their own company, and some, having tasted the freedom the road offers, find the idea of a ‘typical’ lifestyle oppressive and unthinkable. As the film plays out, and we steadily begin to unearth the everyday wonders of the world with our own eyes, it becomes pretty impossible to deny that they all might be onto something.
Cinematographer Joshua James works wonders to bring this fascinating world to life. His breathtaking portraits of America’s wide-open wilderness are frighteningly vast, and Fern, floating naked in a stream or calling out her own name into the echo of a canyon, seems so tiny and insignificant in comparison. With an acute and tentative eye, he captures the singular beauty of every endless landscape and each small, idiosyncratic detail of every rough and weathered face. The mood James creates is endlessly inviting; the world has never looked as big or as wide or as full of wonder, but Zhao doesn’t shy away from the hardships of this lifestyle. We see Fern fight off the bitter cold underneath layers of blankets, consumed by sickness and stomach cramps, tired and sore from hard labour unsuited to a woman of her age, and overwhelmed by loneliness and isolation. The bubble of fun and wonder well and truly pops when we see Fern experience significant engine trouble which lands her trusty old van in the shop. Under the harsh, surgical lights of the repair garage, we realise that Vanguard’s four balding wheels and tired, worn-out engine are the only things standing between Fern and life on the streets. Still, there is something boldly beautiful and poetic about nomadic life – there’s real gumption in deciding to live life by your own rules.
McDormand, who already lays claim to an inspiring body of work (including Oscar wins for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), steps her way into the lifestyle with ease, playing Fern with resourceful determination and grit. Through eyes that brim with tears and desperate sighs of loneliness and frustration, she slips in Fern’s vulnerabilities with sleight of hand. McDormand builds a depth of life and history into Fern, working the story of her life into every unsure step, every dry comment and into each stoic smile. This well may be the most complex and versatile character work of her entire career.
Like all great American road trips, Nomadland is a long and winding ride with a few unexpected turns and misdirection added in for the full immersive experience. It’s a road movie unlike any other and a masterful example of storytelling. The destination is unknown and far off into the distance, but the journey is one hell of a trip.