Directed by Chloe Zhao
Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
To see Chloe Zhao's terrific Nomadland is to know three things.
Firstly, this fascinating part-fiction, part-documentary drama, is an engrossing, beautifully captured modern American pioneer story. One that is at once sociable, yet solitary and contented, yet contemplative.
There is no big full stop. The passage here is the story. This film reminds you of an extended version of those human-interest documentaries you see on TV about unusual, eccentric people you didn’t know exist. But tied up skilfully here with a fictionalised heart to give the show a discernible, relatable centre.
The largely elderly, retiree-age new-day gypsies brought to light in this flick aren’t just living off the grid. In fact, they have no grid at all as they criss-cross the vast, sparse, unpopulated open country of the fabled, independent-minded American West — Nevada, Arizona, California, South Dakota, Nebraska — in their home-on-wheels vehicles.
I tell you, Airbnb doesn’t have anything on their Airy-bnb out in the freezing, campfire-burning barren desert under the sky with nature’s creations of spectacular sunrises, postcard sunsets and wondrous rock formations as their front, back and all-around views. Thus making this a liberating and very scenic existence because, as it’s stated quite clearly here, being house-less isn't the same thing as being homeless.
FYI, most of the folks featured are genuine nomads playing themselves. Which means that they not only walk the walk and talk the talk, they also, well, drive the drive.
It also means that the guerilla filmmaking techniques used by director-writer-co producer Zhao are remarkable. Especially at the itinerant pit stops in the great outdoors which her film crew had to follow from primitive point to primitive point. Primarily, impromptu catch-ups, people talking about their lives in the dark, a rock-festival gathering of van-dwellers in the middle of nowhere called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous which is truly a rock fest because these folks are into collecting actual rocks.
Secondly, two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand as Fern, the central character dropping by along the route upon the dispersed humanscape like a floating visitor, is an absolutely amazing actress. With her thin, gaunt, cold-beaten landscape of a face and her Julie Andrews-style short cropped hair, she seems so naturally at home crammed right there into her small, tight van. But she still remains tentative and very elusive in her thoughts.
I mean, which other actress can carry off so boldly and convincingly, without ego or fanfare, such varied acts of packing parcels at Amazon, cleaning toilets, shovelling beets, passing plates in a diner kitchen and passing, er, motion in her vehicle as the necessary, existential functions in her journey through life?
Man, this peek into an actual giant Amazon packing warehouse in California here — called a “fulfillment centre” — where Fern works on a seasonal basis is such an incredible eye-opener. I had no idea there’s an Amazon CamperForce job programme whereby RV (recreational vehicle) dwellers can work for pay, camaraderie and an alloted parking lot.
McDormand, basically, is hard to pin down with her strong dominating presence and yet faraway gaze as both an insider and an outsider in her Wander Years. The woman is so good a performer and, from the way she traverses large swathes of territory calmly, it appears also a pretty good long-distance driver as well, that apparently even the full-time nomads she mingles with here didn't know at first that she's actually a famous celebrity.
Up until near the end of the film when she explains her motivations, we still can’t figure out whether her Fern character is a true believer in maintaining her newfound vagabond lifestyle, an untamed loner who can’t be tied down or someone who’s just literally going along for the ride. It’s a constant unknown which makes this story a personal mystery that’s so compelling to watch.
“I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering,” she reveals eventually as she talks about staying put in one place — the real-life purpose-built gypsum-mining company town of Empire in Nevada — for a long time before the whole place went bust in 2011 after it was struck by the financial crisis that hit the world. Fern finally leaves the ghost town when her company-worker husband dies and she loses her job.
Now, thirdly and most intriguingly, you’d wanna know how this most endemically American-native tale which surely many Americans themselves must have no idea about, has been made by a 38-year-old woman born in Beijing, China, who reportedly knew little English even when she was already 15 years old. Or maybe it's actually perfectly understandable since she seems to be as gloriously unrooted as the subjects she focuses on here.
Director Zhao, now the frontrunner for an Oscar, is a filmmaker who’s curious about real people residing on the restless fringe in her adopted ang moh land. Her earlier works — 2015’s Songs My Brother Taught Me and 2017’s The Rider — zoomed in on Native Americans.
Her next movie, Eternals, is also about as peripheral a group of superheroes as you can find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But here in this movie, based on a 2017 book by American journalist Jessica Bruder, Zhao has found her ultimate far-flung fringers — people who have really dumped their previous lives of staying put into remade ones of staying permanently adrift.
Their stories are real, their emotions true and their spirits seemingly free. Free, primarily, from the “tyranny of the dollar and the marketplace” which Bob Wells, a real-life nomad guru looking like the Santa Claus of the desert, expounds here. “We workhorses have to gather together and take care of each other,” he declares to his flock.
The man believes in the circular nature of life and even death where “See you down the road” means that Fern will encounter and re-encounter on her route actual travellers Linda May and Swankie, two women who personify wanderlust as the answer to grabbing and seeing the joys of life fully and unapologetically. “My sailboat is out here in the desert,” claims one nomad.
Now, you do wonder here about the wander. About how such cinematically catchy lines are coming out of the mouths of these non-actors. And mostly about how much of this flick here is scripted and how much is real.
Is it a bit too manipulative and dishonest when McDormand/Fern wrangles a very private tale of grief about the passing of his son out of a vulnerable Wells by telling him her fake sad sob story of the death of her husband and the loss of her town and job?
For the record, McDormand's hubby is director Joel Coen (of the lauded Coen brother)s who's very much alive and kicking. Apparently, Zhao wrote in this moving scene that’s framed almost like an interview with Wells’ approval. But still, it can be trying and confusing to separate fact from fiction, particularly in our truth-challenged times.
The good thing, though, is that Zhao mostly lets the nomads tell their stories with dignity and self-respect, and she wisely inserts most of the made-up drama via the character actors she places to test the resolve of Fern in her new life of migration.
David Strathairn (Godzilla) is gently spot-on as David, a fellow traveller who tries to entice Fern to stay homebound with him. While Fern’s personal price of inner rootlessness is summed up in a great scene by her sister who felt hurtfully abandoned when she bugged out of their home previously. “You left a big hole by leaving,” her sis reveals poignantly.
In a word, this wonderful roaming-soul expose, Nomadland, isn't just a public road trip seen from the exterior. It is, at the same time, a most private journey drifting through the interior.
With consummate control, craft and empathy, Chloe Zhao captures powerfully, in her picture frames of one-third vast land and two-thirds big sky, the fire burning in wanderers who stay warm, hopeful and purposeful next to their own campfires.
With the superb Frances McDormand here as one of them, she has the perfect fuel to light those fires up. (*****)
Photo: Searchlight Pictures