There may be no more solemn responsibility for the modern independent filmmaker than to document the lives of the American dispossessed. Exactly how solemnly they approach the task, though, is a good predictor of their potential success. Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao, an outsider who showed her instinctual understanding of the American plains with the meditative and elegiac The Rider, has chosen an unusually heavy-handed solemnity for her follow-up, Nomadland. While this has earned the film absurd levels of critical acclaim, not to mention the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, a closer look reveals a film that is slathering on its mournfulness rather thick.
To be sure, there are reasons for Fern (Frances McDormand) to mourn. She not only recently lost her husband, but she lost the entire town where she and her husband had lived and worked. That’s Empire, Nevada, whose 88-year-old sheetrock factory closed its doors in 2011, turning the area into such a ghost town, its postal code had to be retired.
Approaching retirement age herself, but without savings or steady employment to create a soft landing, Fern has taken to a nomadic lifestyle that involves sleeping in her van, and seasonal odd jobs that dry up at the end of peak periods. One week she’s at an Amazon regional distribution centre to assist with holiday traffic, the next it might be working as a fry cook at the tourist trap Wall Drug in South Dakota.
In her itinerant lifestyle, Fern finds a community of fellow travellers. Van encampments pop up wherever the jobs are, for however long there are jobs, and Fern becomes close with a variety of others who have “left it all behind” – either by choice or by necessity. While many of the people she meets – real-life “nomads” who all go by their real names in the film – are escaping something, be it PTSD or the death of a loved one, some just can’t sleep under any other roof than the night sky. Whether she herself has ended up there by choice or not, Fern soon realises she’s in that latter group.
Nomadland ambles along in this way, documenting what seems to be about two years in Fern’s life. There’s not a story so much as a series of significant moments, such as when Fern’s heavily outfitted van requires repairs that the repairmen say exceed the value of the vehicle, or when a companion tells Fern she’s got six months to live, and wants to spend that time on a final trip to Alaska. Zhao employs a storytelling method that involves sudden leaps forward in time, as a moment of apparent hopelessness is quickly resolved when we see Fern elbows deep into her next job. She’s not a character without hope, she’s a person with an unconventional existence. She tells a student she used to tutor that she’s “houseless,” which is different from being homeless.
Zhao’s choice of how to present this material is an indication of how she views Fern’s life, as a series of snapshots without a centre. That’s not an uncharitable view of a nomadic existence, which is defined by not having a single point around which it orients. But Nomadland often feels like the film itself is searching for a centre. Not that every film requires a clear momentum toward a definite endpoint, but it’s usually impossible to tell how close we are to the end of Fern’s story, and whether that end will even feel like an end. Maybe that’s the point.
The reason these snapshots of Fern’s forlorn existence feel excessive is that they are self-consciously pregnant with meaning. Whether that’s a particular indignity, like having her dinner interrupted by an authority figure telling her she can’t park there, or a moment of beauty, like birds circling around a cliff, it all feels very accentuated.
Contributing in no small way to this sense is the score. Every time we are trying to decide how we feel about a particular moment, Ludovico Einaudi’s plaintive piano starts plinking its keys, forcing us in a particular direction. It was likely the direction we were headed anyway, which just makes it feel superfluous, and more manipulative than someone with Zhao’s sensibilities would usually choose. The Rider had a score as well, but it didn’t dominate like this one does.
McDormand is certainly good in the primary role. She’s on screen in every scene, and is supported by only one other recognisable professional actor, that being David Strathairn – who is called Dave, as you might expect. (Fern is not a nickname McDormand goes by, as far as I can tell, but it is pretty close to the logical abbreviation of her first name.) Still, this does not seem to be a stretch for someone as talented as the two-time Oscar winner. Her prickly persona is a bit similar to the performance that won her her last Oscar, for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She’s a treasure, but she doesn’t need to be to produce Fern’s assortment of thousand-yard stares.
If it seems like I’m piling on Nomadland, I don’t mean to. The reality is that this is a good movie being praised like a great one. When a movie carries the kind of expectations Nomadland brings with it – it won Toronto’s People’s Choice Award in addition to its Venice accolades, making it the first movie ever to do that – it prompts a critic to look for the cracks. Unfortunately, you don’t really have to look very hard.
Nomadland is currently playing a limited season with a longer run scheduled to begin on 4 March.