'Nomadland' Is a Life-Affirming Depiction of Community in the Crumbling American Empire

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells

BY Josiah HughesPublished Feb 18, 2021

Frances McDormand has already led a staggering career, but she may have capped it all off with her role as Fern in Chloé Zhao's immersive, emotionally resonant masterpiece Nomadland. The film, which follows the lives of modern American nomads — many of whom play themselves — as they live in converted work vans and enjoy life in an off-the-grid desert commune, is an astonishing achievement that might just stay with you forever.

Fern once lived with her husband in a tiny town called Empire, Nevada. When he died of an unknown illness, she stayed behind to keep his memory alive until the town's sole income driver, a sheetrock mine, was shuttered and the town itself disintegrated and had its ZIP code deleted. To the judgmental eyes of her family and friends, Fern now lives in her van, which she has converted into a home. She soon learns about a promised land — a commune of vanners who live off the grid in the Arizona desert — and decides to take the leap into the full-on nomad lifestyle. Along the way, she meets a group of colourful and joyous characters, most of whom are played by real-life nomads.

Nomadland feels like a definitive and all-encompassing version of a conversation that was started by films like Jem Cohen's Chain, Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and the films of Sean Baker. It's a movie that demonstrates the actual lived experiences of Americans living in a decaying empire — beholden to massive corporations, screwed over on retirement and forced to work low-income jobs for pitiful pay as they battle cancer and other maladies. But while the reality of their lives is not shied away from (including frank discussions — and demonstrations — of shitting in a bucket), the film is ultimately centred on things like community, resilience and true independence.

The film is at once vast and contained, seamlessly contrasting life in the cramped van with the wide-open majesty of American landscapes (all shot with breathtaking cinematography from Joshua James Richards). Modern life plays a foil for the American pioneer experience, as the nomads break new ground and suggest unlimited potential. Similarly, the film demonstrates a large swath of different jobs — from Amazon warehouse picking to restaurant work to cleaning puke from toilets in a national park — without judgement. It feels like a narrative feature and a documentary at once, and the questions it raises about the human experience are less the kind that can be answered and more the kind that produce misty eyes and endless heartache. Thanks to these distinct, at-times paradoxical elements, Nomadland feels less like a slice of life and more like it's actually alive.

Chloé Zhao has done something miraculous here. It's almost sad to know that her next project sees her entering the Marvel universe with The Eternals. After all, the staunch independence on display in Nomadland belongs everywhere except in the big-studio superhero machine. As with The Rider, she has once again demonstrated that she's a true auteur, and the world is better off with her works in it. Here's hoping we meet again down the road.
(Searchlight Pictures)

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