And so, fresh from the engravers, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is finally released in the UK and much of Europe with three Oscars already bagged. The triumph came as no shock, the film the runaway favourite since a 2020 premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Put some of that down to the nature of the year, one in which more flamboyant movies would have seemed ill-fitting. But the truth is Nomadland would have won in any Oscar year. For all its low-key delicacy, this is a film made with a gleam of purpose.
Symbolism is writ large from the start. A title card announces the fate of Empire, Nevada, a company town that in 2011 winked out of existence. The name might seem too on the nose for a film about the end of an American era, but it has the advantage of being real. Empire featured too in Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, reporter Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction account of mostly elderly citizens turned by recession into wandering “van-dwellers”. Bruder had a fine eye for a story. Likewise Zhao. But the goal here is a higher art than mere journalism — a movie, built around an actor supreme in Frances McDormand.
She plays the indestructible Fern, sixtysomething and leaving Empire. Her life stripped back to what she can fit into her own cramped van, she settles a debt then buries her face in an item about to be left behind. For all Zhao borrows from documentary, these are the careful dramatic pointers of a script.
That blur of fact and fiction is at the heart of Nomadland. Fact and filmmaking too. Everything on screen gets a thick coat of cinematic wonder, natural light as artful as effects in a Marvel blockbuster. An improbable amount of the story take place in the glow of post-dawn and pre-dusk known to filmmakers as “magic hour”. Rarely in Nomadland is it anything so humdrum as mid-morning.
A wonder unto herself is McDormand. As Fern sets out across America in winter, most of her time is spent alone, nothing to respond to but the cold, her tiny space, and brusque instructions to move on in convenience store parking lots. Yet somehow a vivid character takes shape. Along with magic hour, there are many (many) shots of Fern silently gazing into the yonder. You know precisely what she is thinking every time. If a turn this lucid came from anyone but McDormand, you would call it a revelation.
But it is McDormand. That much is both the movie’s masterstroke and one of its complications. Few of the rest of the cast are actors. Most are Bruder’s interviewees, brought to the screen to play versions of themselves. A centrepiece is Fern’s arrival at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering of actual van-dwellers in Arizona. Fern is among the younger attendees. (“OK boomer” as a poke at well-heeled old age will ring hollow after this.)
Separately, the two sides of the film — real nomads and fictional heroine — are hugely powerful. When they share the screen to trade survival tips, your suspension of disbelief wobbles so much that the whole film teeters with it. As McDormand talks to genuine van-dwellers, nodding at their wrenching true stories, even an actor this gifted can’t help but look less like one of their number than — well, celebrated actor Frances McDormand. We might be watching her present a TV documentary after all, about to deliver an empathetic piece to camera.
Nomadland is an easy film to praise. Ever since last year, the hubbub around it has been loud enough that anything less risks sounding contrarian. And so much of it is so good: McDormand’s fine-line brilliance, the moments Zhao captures exactly the mournful beauty of the American horizon. But deep in the movie is something faux — a performance airdropped into real people’s hard lives.
What mild pushback the movie has experienced focused on its untroubled portrait of Amazon fulfilment centres, in one of which Fern is briefly employed. Bruder wrote about gruelling shift patterns. Nomadland cinematographer Joshua James Richards has spoken of how “the Amazon warehouse totally fell right into our colour palette”.
Making minimum wage look just-so is one way for a movie to spend its time. But if Jeff Bezos might be gladdened, broader capitalism does not escape unscathed. It is painted as not just cold but irrational, offering nothing but the crumbs of the gig economy in exchange for the skills and diligence of a woman like Fern.
Some of the real nomads — resourceful as they are — have the daze seen in people who live through natural disaster. After the pandemic, maybe movies will lose their taste for tales of the post-apocalypse. Here, for a strata of US society — workhorses, they are called at one point — a world has already ended. Fern christens her rust-bucket Vanguard, a pun but also a hint she has simply come early to the future. Are we all en route to Nomadland?
If so, few films would have such mixed feelings about it. Bruder’s book was a deft balancing act: a tribute to the women and men in her pages and an indictment of the economy that put them there. The longer the movie goes on, the more it sidelines that second part in favour of old-fashioned romance — the road pure and noble and increasingly where Fern is meant to be rather than where she has to be. A woman with no need of a safety net, she really is some character. But a character she is, a fiction like Nomadland, an award-winning piece of content now found on your Disney Plus menu.
On Disney Plus from April 30