As a rhetorical meme, the word Nomadland (2020) evokes images of displaced people wandering across unfriendly landscapes. First appearing as a book called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017), it is no surprise that the film version is about surviving in a post-GFC world under the shattered moral compass and aberrant political climate of Trump’s America.
It’s a simple story that meanders from a perfect storm towards a dismal future. Fern (Frances McDormand) recently lost her husband to cancer, her job disappeared when the town’s only factory collapsed, and her home place of Empire in Nevada became so deserted that its zip code was cancelled. Her house is worthless and she sells her possessions to buy a van in which to live and search for work wherever it can be found across the deserts of western America. Even temporary low-paid packing jobs at the gigantic Amazon warehouse look attractive. At least there are people in there.
With all the classic tropes of the road trip genre, the narrative gathers layers of emotion from Fern’s brief encounters with other nomads also searching for belonging. The people she meets among various nomad tribes, the road trip mishaps and the life stories told by fellow-travellers, are all vignettes of loneliness painted onto a larger canvas that cries loss and despair. She is so ungrounded that the prospect of a long-term emotional attachment to an interested suitor snuffs itself out without sense or explanation other than the call of the open road.
There is no joy in this film, nothing to smile at, not even a moment of levity. McDormand single-handedly commands the screen; everything we see is through her eyes, and everything she feels we feel. It is a triumphant performance, supported by evocative photography that slowly builds the emotional scaffold of the story. Frame after frame speaks the film’s message with a script of few words. We can feel the dark, cramped, claustrophobic van life juxtaposed against the vastness of space and natural beauty outside. We see closeups of tired craggy facial lines on sun-aged faces, reflecting desert landscapes with trails of never-ending journeys. At times the pace feels glacial, but there’s no hurry if you have nowhere to go.
It’s hard not to think of how these people might be living if capitalist greed, social inequality, and uncaring political leadership did not condemn them to live out their lives in metal boxes on wheels. The haunting images linger. If you walk away bothered by it, the film will have hit its mark.
Director: Chloe Zhao
Stars: Frances McDormand