Accepting her Oscar for best director last week, the Chinese film-maker Chloé Zhao remarked: “I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.” That sentiment runs throughout Zhao’s third feature, a gentle tone poem with western genre inflections, mining the rich seams of human kindness that run through the margins of society. It also chimes with Jessica Bruder’s 2017 source book, in which the author chronicles true tales of the “new nomads” who took to the road after their savings were “obliterated by the Great Recession”, and for whom, “as for anyone, survival isn’t enough … we require hope. And there is hope on the road.”
Frances McDormand is typically convincing as Fern – another indomitable outsider role in which she immerses herself completely, earning her third best actress Oscar. Recently widowed and cash-strapped, Fern decides to leave her longtime home town of Empire, Nevada following factory closures, and strike out on her own. Like a more adventurous Stateside relative of Maggie Smith’s Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van, Fern packs her life into a vehicle and heads off into an uncertain future. But rather than becoming hospitably marooned on a cramped driveway in Camden, McDormand’s pioneering spirit has the vast horizons of America ahead, with cinematographer Joshua James Richards capturing the harsh beauty of the midwestern states that have long been enshrined in movie lore.
At first, life on the road seems perilous and bleak, with inclement weather and cold economic realities giving Fern the chills. Yet she gradually discovers the warmth of America’s travelling community, helped by inspirational figures such as the charismatic Bob (Bob Wells), at whose communal desert rendezvous new life skills are passed around by those who are not “homeless” but simply “houseless”.
As with featured players Linda May and Charlene Swankie, Wells is a real-life van-dweller playing close to home. Building on the experiences of her previous films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, Zhao here mixes seasoned performers like McDormand and David Strathairn with non-professionals, lending an air of documentary-style authenticity to the proceedings.
Since winning a Golden Lion at Venice in September 2020, Nomadland has been on an international winning streak, picking up top prizes at the Golden Globes, the Baftas, and finally the Oscars, where its trophies included best picture. Yet for a film so heavily garlanded with awards, what’s most striking about Nomadland is the almost incidental manner in which it tells its stories – eschewing strident dramatic crises or narrative lurches for something altogether more ambient.
Zhao may have cited “What would Werner Herzog do?” as her creative mantra, but there’s none of the raging chaos or cosmic disharmony of his work in her altogether more benign portraits of humanity. Indeed, one criticism lodged against Nomadland is that it fails to unearth a seething heart of darkness in the Amazon warehouses (or “fulfilment centres”) where Fern and her friends find seasonal work – a criticism sharpened by Amazon’s recent union-busting battles.
None of which is to suggest that Zhao’s America lacks light and shade. On the contrary, there’s a hardscrabble sense of ordinary ageing folk making the best of a bad deal in often desolate and unforgiving circumstances. Yet whatever hardships they face, it’s the air of community and self-determination that rings throughout Zhao’s empathic film. As I write this review, I’m listening to the Nomadland soundtrack album, on which pieces by Ludovico Einaudi and Nat King Cole sit alongside the raggedy campfire sounds of the ensemble cast joyously singing “We can’t wait to get in our vans again!” Unsurprisingly, it’s the last of these that strikes the most resonant chord.