2020 Directed by Chloé Zhao
Even at their most earnest, Hollywood films often tend toward artifice rather than authenticity. Then comes a film like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a fictional drama, inspired by a nonfiction book, about a woman who takes to the road after her husband dies and the 2008 recession takes her house, the factory she worked in, and the town that depended on that factory.
Fern, the protagonist, lives in her van and travels from job to job. She picks up garbage. She cleans toilets. She shovels potatoes. She fills your Amazon Christmas order, then moves on when the work dries up and she can’t afford the rent at the RV park. The jobs are dull and dirty, but she needs and wants to work. These depictions of mundane toil alternate with scenes in which Fern works with purpose and even contentment, as when she makes a nifty drop-down shelf for her van, trades household goods with fellow nomads, and cares for ill “neighbours.”
Whatever kind of work she does, the film portrays Fern with compassion and respect, and this alone makes Nomadland noteworthy, since Hollywood hasn’t always been interested in the lives of ordinary people unless they are criminals, clowns, or humble bystanders to the emotional transformations of prettier and richer characters.
Among other techniques, Zhao uses casting to query this tendency. First, McDormand, who also produced, is probably the least shiny actress in America to consistently nail leading roles, and her restrained performance of a middle-aged woman juggling sorrow and necessity is affecting. Second, Zhao’s decision to cast non-actors to play themselves challenges the boundary between documentary and fiction, thereby insisting on the relevance of people who don’t live in scripts (Zhao did this to even greater effect in her previous film, The Rider).These “characters”are real people who can’t find steady work, can’t survive on their pensions, and can’t afford a house. They sometimes depend on each other, but, as a nomad named Swankie insists, they must be ready to survive on their own. For them, the American dream is a lie.
However, they sometimes find a kind of grim freedom in their nomadic lifestyle. One character compares them to pioneers, and some reviewers have echoed this by deeming the film a western. But while Nomadland refers to the tradition of Ford and Hawks, as well as to counter-culture responses to that tradition, like Hopper’s Easy Rider, Zhao’s film is different. Nomadland’s transients are outsiders, but unlike outlaws, these nomads have nothing to prove, and unlike pioneers, they have nowhere to go. They cross the land, but they do not possess it. Cinematographer Joshua James Reynolds underscores this with sweeping, soft-lit shots of the American midwest that are both grand and bleak, uplifting and intimidating.
And that is why Nomadland’s Oscar for best picture surprises me. This is not a standard film-with-a-message. No heartfelt speech or plot twist saves the day. Fern does change, quietly and inwardly, but the film does not impose closure on the story or on the people it observes. Instead, it looks gently and gravely at the fate of workers in an economy run by the rich and ruined by poorly regulated capitalism. If, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” then one might argue that Fern is freer than the billionaires who perpetrated the 2008 recession, but neither the film nor the world is that simple.