Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland traverses both the physical and philosophical implications of a very specific cultural bubble: the culture of willful itinerants, those individuals who live off the grid, untethered to anything permanent, the antithesis of what most of us would consider “normal.” The film’s title craftily lends this lifestyle its own spatial resonance in modern American life, a community no different than any other; even as its inhabitants are, by definition, unrooted, there is an intrinsic connectivity to their way of life. “Nomadland” is part of America – in fact, it dots the American landscape.
Poetic in both its gorgeous imagery and its quiet contemplation of wandering isolation, the film is a seamless fusion of form and genre, undoubtedly a narrative feature with a screenplay framework, but one that roams freely into a realism so natural it sometimes borders on documentary. After all, its basis is Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction best-seller, a project for which the author spent over a year living as a modern-day nomad. Similarly, the film was shot over four months embedded in the vast American West, with star Frances McDormand spending the majority of the shoot living in a van and working among the nomadic community. There are more real-life nomads than professional actors in the credited cast, and several of them are prominent supporting characters, playing slightly scripted versions of themselves. Zhao’s vision ventures beyond naturalism to reach a true synthesis of nature and narrative, achieving a sort of Narrative Verité, if such a term could exist.
Drifting through this open wilderness, where the endless beauty of nature collides with the quick-hit cynicism of the gig economy, is Fern (McDormand), who we meet on the factory line at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, performing the late-night-into-early-morning work preparing those packages that we bought with one compulsive click. It’s the holiday season, which is the busy season for companies like Amazon and the reaping season for workers like Fern, who form the basis of their yearly budget on the money they make in these seasonal positions. After the holidays, Fern sets off in her van (affectionately dubbed “Vanguard”) to the next venture, wherever and whatever it may be. It’s a cycle Fern repeats, intentionally, throughout the year – moving from region to region, finding work where it’s available, basking in the natural beauty of the terrain and retreating to the van to sleep.
Such is the life of a modern-day nomad, withdrawn from conventional society and charting their own path of self-sustainment. Fern is somewhat new to this lifestyle, a choice made after the entirety of her life was ripped away – first her job, then her husband, and, finally, her house, in the wake of the Great Recession. But she isn’t alone in her plight; there is a large community of nomads across the country, and Fern finds her place among them, forming casual friendships and seeking advice on minor conveniences to enhance her lifestyle (fashioning an empty bucket as an in-van toilet is one of the less novel but most helpful suggestions). The community feels like a world of its own, even though the world is constantly, intentionally displaced, a world full of fleeting bonds, familiar faces, and paths that cross, diverge, and eventually cross again. That constant loop of passing connectivity is cited by one of Fern’s acquaintances as a benefit of the nomadic lifestyle, because it means there’s no such thing as goodbye: “we always promise to see each other down the road.”
The notion of no final goodbyes, of a road long enough to eventually reconnect with those met along the way, might be what Fern is truly seeking. You can’t suffer the loss of a job if you’re stated goal is to jump from one temporary gig to the next. You can’t lose your house if you don’t live in one. And you can’t mourn a loved one if you never know someone long enough to fall in love. Of course, those are impossible standards to maintain, but what Zhao so masterfully captures in Nomadland – without judgment or pity – is the dichotomy of Fern’s plight. Is she constantly moving to seek the hidden corners of the world, or to run from the pain of the world she knew? The wonders of nature are restorative, but they are also desolate and spare. Perhaps loneliness is but a state of mind when one is surrounded by a community of like-minded people, but at the end of the night, everyone retreats to their vehicular home. At the end of every job, each worker departs down the road alone – heading out into the vastness, warm but empty, an open frontier that cradles the wanderers.