Savina Petkova on Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’.
In 2011, the whole mining town of Empire, Nevada, was abandoned by its population after the shutdown of its industrial beating heart—a consequence of the Great Recession. This is, quite literally, the point of departure for Chloé Zhao’s third feature film, Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as 61-year old Fern, who reluctantly closes a garage door to many boxes, the contents of which once composed her home. By deconstructing the notion of home in relation to housing and environment, Zhao remains, as ever, compassionate to the socially marginal—men and women that are road dwellers by choice and seasonal labourers by force of circumstance.
It was McDormand who approached the filmmaker after seeing her sophomore feature, The Rider (2017), and recounts being struck by the film’s gentle tactility and firm grip on dramatic arcs. Together with producing partner Peter Spears, McDormand found a home for a long-standing project that was to become Nomadland. Based on a book on nomadic living in the American West by journalist Jessica Bruder, the film won the Golden Lion in Venice earlier this year. Such an intimate origin story testifies to the suitability of Zhao’s immersive feeling-telling (rather than simple story-telling) which brings forth her immersive directorial approach that enlivens both characters and their surroundings.
As a director raised in Beijing and England, Zhao brings in an alternative look upon American identity, especially when tied to the rich symbol of the road as a transmigratory horizon. But the film’s gaze brushes over a tangible map of the American West from the Badlands of South Dakota, the Nevada desert, to the Pacific Northwest. Joshua James Richards, Zhao’s regular cinematographer, frames all these topoi as immense monuments of nature with humans just passing by.
As a film that questions the difference between being homeless and being houseless, Nomadland feels paradoxically homely and intimate. Its pace, overseen by Zhao herself, shows more attention to sequences of human interaction and the long takes are never wasted on serpentine roads or window shots. However poetic they can be, such an overabundance would make out of Nomadland an overly fleeting, dreamy experience. Rather, Zhao’s concise editing stretches the episodes where we meet the nomads, the camera gets to know them in close-ups and lingers over the props that, in this case, are no less crucial to building a character—after all, all the nomads have are their possessions, locked and refurbished into an RV. Intuitive and attentive to mise-en-scène, Nomadland never hides away its preference for people over wayward roads and postcard landscapes. A hand plunged into a salad bowl, a close up of the sun rising over cactus needles in the desert, crocodile devouring meat—the protracted attention to all these objects grounds the film. If the road-dweller lifestyle is a marathon, Nomadland is composed of its detours.
Subtly morphing from fast to slow editing tempo, the film maintains just the right amount of distance from the lifestyle that Fern assimilates into, showing its value through its participants but never glamorising their hardships. Real nomads play themselves: Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells are Fern’s comrades and helpers down the road. Through her perseverance, her swift gestures, and snappy tone, McDormand anchors a touching rendition of a newcomer’s experience in this tight community without ever leading the audience astray. Together with her acting game, the Academy Award winner put her actual labour into the film’s making alongside Amazon workers and trailer park hosts, showing a bit more than the role dedication associated with actors of a star calibre. Her atonement for being the only professional actor is humility and humanity, whether it’s bringing a flower-patterned dinnerware that was a gift from her own father to use as a prop, or exposing herself in urinating and defecating sequences. Life is life and no accusation can be made towards Nomadland for excluding any small part of it.
The film is drenched in the melancholic score of Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, its levity almost carrying the hefty vehicles over the long and often bumpy roads towards the American anti-dream of impossible retirement and unattainable jobs. While string and piano compositions glide through the air, the film’s sound design never fully succumbs to their potential aestheticisation—whether it’s an engine’s rumble, footsteps over asphalt, or just the wind blowing, there’s always this tangibility of the natural world that renders the aesthetic experience sublime. In this way, Nomadland becomes anti-mythological and finds beauty in disillusion, its lyricism always hand in hand with the harsh truths of precarious living.
“Nomadland” screened as part of the 64th BFI London Film Festival. It is scheduled for UK wide release on 1st January 2021 and in the US on 4th December 2020.
Director Chloé Zhao
Writer Chloé Zhao, based on a book by Jessica Bruder
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards
Editor Chloé Zhao
Cast Frances McDormand, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier, Linda May
Duration 108 minutes