Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is an utterly inspired docu-fictional hybrid, like her previous feature The Rider. It is a gentle, compassionate, questioning film about the American soul. With artistry and grace, Zhao folds nonprofessionals into an imagined story built around a cheerful, resourceful, middle-aged woman played by Frances McDormand. This quiet, self-effacing performance may be the best of her career so far.
Nomadland is about a new phenomenon: America’s 60- and 70-something generation whose economic future was shattered by the 2008 crash. They are grey-haired middle-class strivers reduced to poverty who can’t afford to retire but can’t afford to work while maintaining a home. So they have become nomads, a new American tribe roaming the country in camper vans in which they sleep, looking for seasonal work in bars, restaurants and – in this film – in a gigantic Amazon warehouse in Nevada, which takes the place of the agricultural work searched for by itinerant workers in stories such as The Grapes of Wrath. Zhao was even allowed to film inside one of Amazon’s eerie service-industry cathedrals.
The film shows you that, along with the hardship and the heartache, there is also serenity in this way of life, even a kind of euphoria – without the burdens of a house and possessions you can have a glorious and very American freedom in the lost tradition of Emerson and Twain. But what happens if your van – or your body – shows signs of collapse?
The movie is inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and by the radical nomadist and anti-capitalist leader Bob Wells, who appears as himself and has a devastatingly moving speech at the end of the film.
McDormand stars as Fern, a widow and former substitute teacher in Empire, Nevada – a town wiped off the map by a factory closure – who is forced into piling some possessions into a tatty van and heading off, something she accepts with an absolute lack of self-pity. The people she meets on the road are, mostly, real nomads who have vivid presences on screen and McDormand’s modest, equable persona slots easily into this group. In some ways, her character functions as the film’s interviewer, or ambassador to the real world. Zhao and McDormand have to steer her fictional existence into their actual lives, and steer their lives into an imagined world. McDormand is a marvellous diplomat for this creative process. The other fictional character is a nice, if maladroit person, a fellow nomad-tramp (David Strathairn) who has a crush on Fern.
Sometimes Nomadland looks like a very, very sweet and positive version of Mad Max – a film about a postapocalyptic US where the people riding around in vans and trucks are just hippy-ish souls who only want to help each other. I spent a few anxious minutes here and there waiting for what I assumed would be the inevitable incursion by violent Hells Angels or sneery materialists, but it never happened. And in some ways this isn’t quite a postapocalypse: the nomads find work and their lives have a kind of purpose, even a nobility. Fern’s sister compares them to American pioneers. At times, the film looks like a tour of a deserted planet, especially when she heads out to the Badlands national park in South Dakota, where there is also tourist-trade work to be had. But the nomads are not alone. They have each other, and their relationship to the non-nomad world is far from hostile.
Zhao may well have drawn some inspiration from movies such as Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) or Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), with their hard-scrabble world. The important difference is that her movie is not directionally shaped by narrative – that is, a narrative towards disaster – in the usual way, although there are important plot developments concerning Fern’s relationship with her shy suitor. It is more of a group portrait and a portrait of the times, brought off with exceptional intelligence and style. Arguably it is not angry enough about the economic forces that are causing all this but it still looks superbly forthright. There is real greatness in Chloé Zhao’s film-making.
•Nomadland is released in the UK on 30 April on Disney+ and on 17 May in cinemas.