Though it lacks some of the trappings of the genre, Nomadland is as much a survival film as Cast Away (2000) or 127 Hours (2010). However, the wilderness isn’t the uncaring foe at the heart of this exquisite, truly American drama; here our 21st-century society is just as indifferent as nature as to whether we struggle or thrive, or whether we live or die. Though that makes Nomadland sound like a grim slog, writer/director Chloé Zhao and lead actress Frances McDormand have instead created a film that is as much a joyful celebration of both individualism and community as it is an indictment of the United States’ treatment of its aging population.
From the film’s opening frames, we know who McDormand’s Fern is. Scrappy and self-reliant, Fern cobbles together an unconventional life along the fringe. After the death of her husband, their beloved town of Empire, Nevada, soon follows suit, collapsing after its largest employer closes. Fern moves from place to place in her white Ford van, nondescript from the outside but outfitted with care as her home on the inside. An early scene finds Fern doing seasonal work at an Amazon warehouse, surrounded by acres of stuff that will be shipped to people who probably don’t need it. Her life is a stark contrast, with everything she needs neatly organized into her van. She finds other short-term and odd jobs, moving across the American West wherever there is work. Though fiercely independent, Fern finds camaraderie with those who’ve chosen a similar lifestyle, from Swankie and Linda May (who play themselves) to Dave (David Straithairn).
Zhao’s pairing of Oscar winner McDormand and Oscar nominee Straithairn alongside non-professional actors adds even more authenticity to the drama, which is based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It may often be obvious who is and who isn’t starring in their first film, but each performance still rings true.
Poetry and prose coexist here as well; Zhao unsentimentally shows the details of Fern’s life, from using a bucket as a bathroom to making canned soup on a hot plate. However, Nomadland also celebrates the sweetness of simple pleasures, from a campfire singalong to a bummed cigarette and shared beer. It reminds the audience of the beauty of both the everyday and the extraordinary. Joshua James Richards’ expansive cinematography feels like the cinematic representation of “This Land Is Your Land,” capturing the western U.S. from the desolate desert to the towering redwoods. Nomadland recognizes some of America’s good qualities — its wide-open spaces, how people take care of each other — while highlighting its inherent and intentional inequities. Fern’s experience isn’t an isolated case, as we see other nomads gathering together and RVs and vans dot the landscape. The vehicles are largely populated by those with wanderlust or who would have retired decades ago but can no longer afford to do so in the 21st-century economy.
Melancholy threads through Zhao’s film, but Nomadland never wallows in it or pities its protagonist and those like her. There’s so much soul in this film, offering scenes that are funny and sweet and sad, at once so much like life and so full of life itself. Watching it is reminiscent of the late, great Sundance Channel drama Rectified, a show about people who aren’t normally seen on screen. That series shared a contemplative tone that dwells on life, death, and the merits of every moment in between.
Nomadland is a humanist masterpiece, improving even on Zhao’s critically beloved previous film, 2017’s The Rider. It demonstrates the value of each of these lives lived, both intrinsically as well as in showing a world many viewers might find foreign. This is a quiet film, but never a dull one, with shots and themes that will continue to resonate as it offers both criticism and comfort.