In 2011, the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada was closed due to a recession. Since Empire was owned by the United States Gypsum Corporation, the entire town was closed down and, five months later, its citizens were all forced to leave their homes.
This real-life event is used as the inciting incident in the drama Nomadland (streaming on Hulu), about a former resident of Empire who now lives out of her van while finding temporary work throughout the American west.
It is a moving study of a woman who had everything taken away from her and finds some connection with the land and the people who have chosen a similar way of life. This is not a plot-driven movie. It is not about what happens to her. Simply recounting the events that take place in Nomadland would make it sound like nothing happens. Yet it is endlessly captivating. Part of that is because of the incredible lead performance from Frances McDormand. Part of that is because of the tremendous work by director/screenwriter/editor/producer Chloé Zhao. Together it adds up to an absolutely wonderful experience.
The story begins about a year after Empire became a ghost town. In addition to losing her home, Fern’s husband died a little while before the town did. Now she is alone, on the road, getting seasonal jobs and living out of her van. We see her working at an Amazon plant, cleaning up at a tourist spot and working in a kitchen. Despite her occasional struggles, she enjoys her life and wouldn’t give it up for anything. In the face of the concerns of others, especially her family, she tells them she isn’t homeless. She just doesn’t have a house.
This is Zhao’s third feature (her screenplay is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder). Her second, 2018’s The Rider, is about a cowboy who has to contemplate starting over after a serious head injury forces him to leave the rodeo. The lead and the majority of the supporting cast were playing versions of themselves, lending it a powerful, documentary-like, quality. It was one of the best movies of 2018. Nomadland features a two-time Oscar winner as its star (as well as Oscar nominee David Strathairn in a key supporting role), but it still contains the same feeling as though we are watching a real life being lived. McDormand, Zhao and various members of the crew stayed in vans during the production, shooting at real locations and interacting with nomads who play versions of themselves (interestingly, Zhao’s next project is Marvel’s Eternals, which will be a fascinating change of pace for her).
Maybe it is because of the down-to-Earth approach or maybe she is just that good, but McDormand never feels like a visitor to this world. I believed in Fern as much as I believed in Linda May or Swankie or Bob Wells, three of the actual nomads she befriends on her travels. Zhao doesn’t give her big dramatic moments or reveals to sink her teeth into. Her emotions are let out casually, gradually, in the course of the story. Her character arc is one that started before we meet her and will continue long after Nomadland fades to black. In between those two things, McDormand suggests a lifetime’s worth of choices.
This is a woman who was happy, lost everything and has comfortably settled into this existence. The movie does not ask us to feel bad for her. Fern rejects our sympathy. She already had a house, town and husband she loved; they are all gone. This is her life now. Even though it is hard, it is what she wants. Zhao and McDormand tell us this without speeches or big gestures. They do it by just showing us how Fern gets through the days, months, years; by turning our attention to the lives these people, who are rarely, if ever, shown onscreen, lead, for whatever reasons they choose to lead it. They give us the stories, sometimes sad, of people who always dreamed of being on the road, seeing the country, and now get to do just that. The cumulative impact of it all is pretty amazing.
5 out of 5
Frances McDormand as Fern
David Strathairn as Dave
Linda May as Linda
Swankie as Swankie
Bob Wells as Bob
Directed and Screenplay by Chloé Zhao