Early on in Nomadland, Fern tells someone, “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. It’s not the same thing.” Fern is 61. She’s a widow. But she hasn’t just lost her husband. She’s lost her way of life. Empire, the company town where they lived, has been shut. We are told the zip code has been discontinued. So Fern becomes a nomad. She fits her van, which she names Vanguard, with a bed, a cooking area and a small storage space. She takes up temporary jobs, including one in a gigantic Amazon fulfilment centre. Mostly she drives through the vast American landscape. Sometimes Fern seems dwarfed by the immensity of nature – towering trees, snow-covered plains that stretch as far as the eye can see, thundering seas crashing against ragged rocks. Fern is alone but she isn’t pitiful – not even when she’s using a bucket in the van as a toilet. Her resilience is deeply moving. Her dignity and strength made me weep.
Director Chloé Zhao constructs Nomadland like a mournful, sublime poem. The beauty of the terrain contrasts with the harshness of life on the road, where a punctured tyre in a remote location can mean death. The film, adapted by Zhao from the meticulously reported book with the same name by Jessica Bruder, asks us to reconsider our notions of comfort and home. Fern has the choice to live in a house with a bathroom and running water. But each time that option is offered to her, she walks away, returning to the freedom and splendid isolation of the road. Fern, like many of the other van dwellers we meet, refuses to submit to, as one character puts it, ‘the tyranny of the dollar.’ Free of a physical house and belongings, she goes where her instincts take her.
Nomadland stars Frances McDormand who acts alongside real-life nomads who were featured in Bruder’s book, who play themselves. McDormand, of course, is an Oscar-winning, globally recognised actor but there isn’t a moment when she seems to be out of sync with the others. She has a masterful control over expression and does a lot, while doing very little. Early on, as Fern goes through her things trying to figure out what to take with her, she comes across her husband’s jacket. She momentarily pauses and holds it tight, almost as though she is holding him. It’s a small gesture but it tells us all we need to know about their relationship. There is a profound stillness and truth, both in her performance and in the film.
Fern is a fictional character. The others – Swankie, a great nature lover; Linda May, who plays Fern’s best friend and Bob Wells, a sort of van dwellers’ guru – play themselves. Zhao recreates the rituals of nomad life. Van dwellers annually collect at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering in Arizona, led by Wells. They chase seasonal employment. Their lives might not have structure but they have rhythms. And most importantly, they have relationships that thrive in the rootlessness. In one of the film’s best scenes, Bob tells Fern that their lifestyle might make connections tenuous but inevitably, paths cross again. So there are no final goodbyes. His parting line always is – see you down the road.
Nomadland works at many levels. It’s an unvarnished portrait of the horrors of the market economy but also an exhortation to live more keenly, to feel more and to own less. Fern’s job at Amazon, where she is packing goods to ship to customers contrasts with scenes of van dwellers simply giving away or trading what they don’t need. Downsizing is a virtue.
Nomadland won the Golden Lion, the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival. It’s also got six Oscar nominations, including Best Cinematography for Joshua James Richards and Best Picture, Director, Editor and Adapted Screenplay for Zhao.
This is a film you want to see preferably on the largest screen you can find, so you can take in the stark beauty of the wide shots and the way the light caresses the creases on Fern’s face. If you’re going to a theatre, do remember to wear a mask.