Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao has made two beautiful films set amongst the Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota – Songs my Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) – and before her big budget Marvel blockbuster The Eternals is released, she has managed to squeeze in one more independent film. Nomadland very much continues Zhao’s themes of exploring poverty in rural America and her unique takes on the Western and the American Dream. While Zhao’s first two features used non-professional actors and involved her building a story around their real lives, her latest work has an Oscar-winning star at the centre of it – Frances McDormand, who plays Fern – a woman whose town has been devastated by the closing of its industry.
Several directors have examined working class characters in ‘middle’ America, particularly since 2016, mostly extremely sensitively, including in Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh, 2017), Mobile Homes (Vladimir de Fontenay, 2017), Weightless (Jaron Albertin, 2017), Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018), We the Animals (Jeremiah Zagar, 2018) and Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018). Coincidentally, the biggest misguided misfire within this niche genre also starred Frances McDormand – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017) – which, for me, was a case of an outsider (in this case, an Irish director) attempting to tackle a place and people he had no real understanding of. An outsider’s eye can be valuable, as seen in Chloé Zhao’s first two films, but she embedded herself in those communities, earning their trust and building relationships, which comes across in her finished work.
Zhao has taken a hybrid approach in Nomadland, where she uses established actors such as McDormand and David Strathairn, but most of the people they encounter on their travels are ‘real’. Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, which explores the phenomenon of older American workers (mostly of what we would usually consider retirement age) travelling the country in vans and campers, surviving by taking seasonal work wherever they can find it. One of the centre-pieces of the film is a kind of convention or festival (which definitely has Burning Man vibes) which shows this disparate ‘community’ of travellers coming together once per year to trade tips, make repairs and improvements to their mobile homes, to barter items and to generally help each other out.
Nomadland‘s biggest selling point, without a doubt, is just how jaw-dropping the scenery is. Not many films have made me sad that I can’t see them on a big screen this year, but this is definitely one of them. The deserts and mountains of South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona and then the rocky West Coast of California are all stunningly showcased by Zhao’s regular cinematographer Joshua James Richards (who also shot another favourite film of mine – God’s Own Country). This portrait of middle-and-Western America will fill you with a melancholic ache, when you see how vast and empty the vistas are, you realise what a beautiful country it really is and it’s hard to stomach what some people are doing to it. Richards also takes on production design duties on Nomadland, meaning that the detail of Fern’s world – a microhabitat that she has built in the van that is her home – is also down to him.
A mixed blessing comes in the form of the soundtrack, which uses several Ludovico Einaudi pieces. While the music is emotionally stirring, especially when paired with the images, it does make this film feel more sentimental and manipulative of the audience than Zhao’s previous two. While Nomadland acknowledges some hardship that has led Fern to where she is (her husband has died), both her and David Strahairn’s character Dave have safety-nets in the form of Fern’s sister (who lends her money when her van breaks down and tells her she can move in with her if she wants) and Dave’s son (who lives in a gorgeous farmhouse with a sea-view in California). This probably isn’t true of all of the ‘real’ people who populate the film, as a backdrop to Fern’s story and getting to know some of them and their stories better would have perhaps provided a less idealised and privileged viewpoint.
It’s hard to ignore, in 2020, how overwhelmingly white the film is and leads you to wonder how a homeless woman living in her van, finding parking lots to stay in overnight would be treated if she wasn’t white. Everyone Fern encounters is nice and helpful, there are no political arguments, the T-word isn’t mentioned – this is a land that many of us would like to travel to. Zhao certainly makes this lifestyle seem appealing and while Fern does have to do physically demanding work at an age when she should be relaxing, the rewards (her freedom, getting to travel through the amazing scenery) seem worth it. Perhaps providing one dissenting voice, or counterpoint to this optimistic outlook would have made the film feel more balanced.
I definitely think that if I hadn’t loved Chloé Zhao’s two previous films so much, I would see Nomadland differently and more favourably. If this is your introduction to her work, I hope you’ll be so impressed that you seek out her other films. It is gratifying to see Zhao getting all of this festival and awards ‘buzz’ now and it’s exciting that she’s entering the MCU. McDormand is incredible here and deserves the attention she’s been getting too. Nomadland does shine a light on an important issue – how the 2008 crash and economic downturn has affected those who should be retiring in comfort – I just wish it hadn’t put quite such a positive spin on it.