Searchlight Pictures | Directed by Chloé Zhao | 2020 | 1 h 47 min
Chloe Zhao’s film Nomadland—which just won the Oscar for best picture, best director, and best actress—opens with two lines of textual exposition. This is what the writing on the wall says: “On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years. By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.”
With such a lede, I expected to watch a parable about how everything falls apart—a bleak little film following the hardscrabble lives of Empire’s former residents. I expected flash-cuts to highway signs that read “Wichita 2½ Miles,” snippets of gas station chatter, a half-pack of Marlboros per scene, gummy-eyed mornings, country music, horsepower, a pistol in the glove compartment, and a pair of dirty work boots on the dash.
Nomadland both is and isn’t interested in telling us that story. It’s a film about the challenging grace of life on the road in 21st century America, but it’s also a film about one woman, Fern (Frances McDormand), a long-time resident of Empire who has recently moved into the back of her van. After Empire’s fall, Fern finds a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, where she spends hours of each day taping up America’s Prime-ordered knife sets and decorative shams. We watch Fern and her co-workers do puzzles at the laundromat and wax poetic about their Morrisey tattoos. (Zhao’s film, based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, has since been roundly criticized for its apolitical, almost milquetoast, portrayal of working conditions at the retail giant.) When the Amazon workflow dries up, Fern puts out feelers for another, local gig, only to be told she should go on early retirement. “I don’t think I can get by on the benefits,” Fern says, and besides, “I need work. I like work.”
Thus begins Fern’s time on the road. In the Arizona desert, she links up with a band of self-identified “modern nomads” at their annual “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.” Bob Wells, a real-life itinerant and YouTube personality who serves as the group’s oratorial linchpin, likens the nomads to society’s forgotten workhorses: draft beasts, never thoroughbreds, who’ve outlived their most productive years and so been “put out to pasture.” One woman at the moot offers a tutorial on the ideal volume of plastic bucket for on-the-go defecation. Another schools Fern in the fine art of van-painting. The members of this group will of course eventually disperse, uncircling their wagons and peeling off for Kansas or Montana, Oregon or the border, but for the time being, they have gathered here by the fires of an outdoor hearth to crowdsource stories and wisdom.
Bruce Chatwin, a seasoned traveler, once wrote that wanderlust is non-negotiable, as ingrained in our species as opposable thumbs and poor lumbar support. “Could it be,” Chatwin asks in his book The Songlines, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” Zhao seems to share Chatwin’s view of wanderlust as this innate, primeval urge. Restless, often trapped animals make frequent appearances in Nomadland. The radio tells Fern about some ursine troublemakers at a “polar bear holding facility” who must be kept “imprisoned until they settle down.” Later additions to the film’s menagerie include a family of moose, an invisible infestation of ants, a crocodile in a glass enclosure, and a footloose American bison. Fern sees this last beast as she drives past—a hoary shape shambling along the roadside. For a moment, the two travelers are caught moving at different paces but in the same, general direction, adherents to a lost periodicity.
I say lost because none of the film’s travels, by hoof or by van, could really qualify as “natural.” All the roadways that Fern plies are maintained by civil servants and funded by tax dollars; all the “untouched” land she passes through has of course already been touched, whether by the tread of prior inhabitants or the chemical runoff from distant fields. Seasons may determine the when and where of life on the road, but these seasons are just as manmade as they are natural, pegged to the profit margins of multinational corporations and the ebb and flow of local tourism. Still, a sense of numinous possibility pervades the film’s depictions of landscape. One woman Fern meets in Arizona puts it this way: “I love this lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle of freedom and beauty and connection to the Earth.”
Fern gives this Kool-Aid an appreciative sniff but doesn’t drink it down. This is one appealing trait shared by Fern the character and Zhao the director: a mutual aversion to evangelism. Nomadland provides no overt commentary on 21st century vagrancy. Instead, it gathers together a bouquet of poetic, telling details that attempt to capture experience on the ground. When Fern’s not working as a camp host in the Dakotas or a beetroot harvester in Nebraska, she is driving around the West to a piano heavy score, or walking around ghost towns in a white t-shirt dress and Birkenstocks. Somewhere in California, she stops to touch, with reverence, the base of a fallen redwood, its roots, like hers, no longer in the ground. Somewhere else in Arizona, she yells at the mountains and the mountains yell back. These scenes play out just as sentimentally as they sound.
Yet Zhao has fashioned the lightest of crafts to convey her muse’s wanderlust, a road film that somehow avoids any tropism towards crunching metal or burnt rubber. The film’s motion, its method of moving the viewer, is instead that of a long daydream. Watching it for the first time in an empty IMAX theater in snowy Boston, I consumed the film’s dappled imagery as one does a strong analgesic—the film seeped into me like an atmosphere.
I won’t deny that Zhao’s film does, as Richard Brody writes, run the risk of “aestheticizing disaster.” But I also have to wonder if some of its lyrical flourishes aren’t also earned. Is it that unbelievable that many modern nomads might hold a strong, if nebulous, attachment to things like nature and rugged individualism? That maybe they even need these silver linings to continue living in the way that they do? Is it always the filmmaker’s task to debunk what Lauren Berlant would call the nomads’ “good life fantasies” by relentlessly portraying them as the victims of systemic, social pathologies? And do we—the presumably more fortunate, more sedentary viewers of this film—always benefit more from art that solicits our probing thoughts rather than our saccharine feelings?
What remains stubbornly mysterious about Nomadland is precisely the point of it all, the takeaway. Perhaps this is why the film has both appealed to so many audiences and raised so many hackles. A few theories do get floated for why Fern is doing what she’s doing. Her sister Dolly wants to liken her to the pioneers of yore—“I think Fern’s part of an American tradition. I think it’s great.”—a categorization that Fern neither accepts nor denies. Some migratory urges are, we realize, difficult to explain. Many of the people Fern meets on the road tell her they are out here because of heartbreak or grief, terminal illness, untenable economic situations, etc., and Fern’s own impetus for wandering could easily be viewed as a composite of all the above. Yet we cannot know a definitive why because Fern herself seems undecided. She stays mostly silent, listening, a vessel for everyone else’s rationales.
The only real divulgence Fern makes in the film is that she used to live in a place called Empire, that this place had an airport, a general store, and a golf course, and that she stayed there for many years on account of her husband Bo. “He loved Empire,” she recalls late in the film, speaking also for herself. The couple had kept a tract house on the edge of town, a lawn with a chain link fence, this wide-open view of desert, and no, it did not last, but the remnants of that place and time were so strong that it took Fern a long time to leave, to slip away from Empire’s grasp. She felt bound to a place that wasn’t even a place anymore, a place that had lost its very zip code, becoming one of those unlovely waypoints by the road that the anthropologist Marc Auge calls a “non-place.”
If Nomadland proves anything, it’s that even a non-place can occupy the position of a person’s absent center. Indeed, almost all of the transients Fern meets are carrying around their own places that went missing. For some, it’s the family home they never properly made. For others, it’s a set of Alaskan cliffs where the “swallows fly above and below and all around you,” a place where you can feel so at peace with the world that death would be welcome at any moment.
These places are not the destinations that Nomadland’s characters are seeking but the source of their forward momentum, what propels them ever onwards down their separate roads. They mourn these places, and sometimes, if they’re lucky, they may find a livable replacement. But for Fern, the tail end of each day’s drive is just another drive. She climbs into the van, which she calls “vanguard,” as in the front lines at a skirmish. She quietly takes her leave.
Thomas Dai is currently working on his doctorate in American Studies at Brown University. Recent essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Conjunctions, CityLab, and elsewhere. You can find out more about him and his writing at his website.