Describing two of his favorite novels, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) said “Moby-Dick is about space and On the Road is about speed.” Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which won the Golden Lion at Venice and screened as the centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival, is a film about both of those things: the wide open spaces of the American landscape, and the speed at which Fern (Frances McDormand) passes through them in a year-long cycle, pulling up to various small town encampments to work seasonal jobs while living out of her van.
Although based on a nonfiction book, Nomadland uses Fern, a fictional character, as an avatar for an entire subculture of displaced people who have learned self-reliance the hard way — in Fern’s case, her husband died and she lost her job after her small Nevada town disbanded. But like any great filmmaker, Zhao saves this exposition for when we need it. When we first meet her, working at an Amazon center over the 2011 Christmas holiday, we learn about her through her interactions with co-workers and old friends and relatives. In these scenes, we are given hints of the darker forces at play in her life, but only just enough before moving on to the next scene.
This leads to one of the hallmarks of Nomadland: its bravura editing. Zhao, who, in addition to writing and directing, edited the film herself, moves us in and out of each scene with the deftness of Ernest Hemingway, telling us only what we need to know before throwing us into another scene. She collapses weeks into minutes, giving us a sense that this is just part of Fern’s yearly routine — one thing done, on to the next. The overall effect of this is to disorient us, just as Fern and the others must have felt when they began living on the road, but Zhao trusts her audience enough to know that we will catch on to it, a sign of what a great storyteller she is. Her achievement is all the more remarkable given that she only edited it out of necessity during quarantine earlier this year.
The other hallmark of the film is, of course, McDormand. This is her first screen performance since she won her second Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and she’s guaranteed a third one for her work here. McDormand has always been able to communicate the inner lives of her characters with only the bare minimum, but someone else’s bare minimum is her maximum. Just look at the way she holds herself when talking to the people in her life who knew her before she moved into her van: a mother whose daughter she used to tutor; her sister with whom she stays briefly when her van breaks down (played by one of her best friends from Yale, Melissa Smith.) In these scenes, she shows us the pain behind Fern’s mask of self-reliance without ever asking for our pity.
Zhao’s previous films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, were made up almost entirely of non-actors, and with the exceptions of McDormand and Strathairn, Nomadland’s ensemble is largely non-actors too. Given her stardom, it would be easy for McDormand to overwhelm everyone else, but it’s a testament to her humility as an actress that she never dominates any scene she’s in. Even though many scenes in this movie involve her just listening to other people tell her their stories, she is receptive without ever being passive, never inserting herself in a way that would throw them off.
In the hands of another filmmaker, Nomadland might seem like a quirky, oddball adventure, and films about people living out of mobile homes are great subjects for comedy, such as Albert Brooks’ Lost in America, a brilliant satire of yuppies uprooting their lives to live on the road in imitation of Easy Rider. Nomadland may be that film’s opposite in tone, since Zhao doesn’t share Brooks’ irony, but she does share a documentary-like attention to detail in her willingness to delve into the absurdities of living a nomadic existence, such as how to use the bathroom in a van.
Zhao also shares Brooks’ sense of total control over tone, never once allowing the film to delve into bathos. In one scene, David (played by David Strathairn) breaks Fern’s plate, an object we know has great meaning to her due to her late husband. This whole conflict is told in four shots: the plate breaking, a close-up on its shards, a cut to Fern gluing it back together and then a close-up on her face. Zhao then immediately cuts the two of them in her van, where she makes him soup. There’s no sentimentality: she leaves it to us to figure out when and how they made up, or how much time has gone by between these two scenes.
“I’ve spent too much of my life remembering,” Fern tells her friend Bob towards the film’s end, as she hits the road for another year of the same old. We can relate to this feeling all too well, since we’ve spent the last seven months remembering what things were like before March 2020, and like Fern, we still can’t tell if we’ve learned anything. But her lack of self-pity and the joy she takes in ordinary things, which she shares with Zhao, are a beautiful reminder of how much bigger the world is than us.
Note: Nomadland will be released by Fox Searchlight on December 4th.