Arts and Entertainment

“Nomadland”: Frames of Humanity

While Chloé Zhao’s third feature goes out of the way to avoid talking politics, its genius is in locating emotional truth amidst disaster.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Christina Pan

There’s an old parable about a bear who lives in a circus. When it’s not performing, the bear is kept in a small cage with barely enough room to walk around. So the bear spends its days pacing in circles, the same loop over and over again. One day, the bear’s trainer forgets to lock the door. He realizes his mistake and rushes back, fearing a ferocious animal on the loose. But, upon his arrival at the cage, he finds he has nothing to fear. The bear doesn’t even notice the door isn’t locked. It keeps pacing in the same small circle, oblivious to the fact that it could finally be free. Eventually, the cage begins to rust and fall apart, so the trainer stops using it. Wherever the bear is told to go, it’ll just keep pacing in that same small circle.

Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” centers Fern (Frances McDormand) with the whole country opened up before her. She can go wherever she wants and see whatever she wants to see. There’s nothing tying her down to one place but seasonal jobs and seasonal friends. She takes advantage of that freedom, reveling in the beauty of nature and the countless breathtaking sights over the course of the film. But in some ways, her van has become a cage she can’t escape even when the door is wide open. Does Fern truly love this lifestyle, or has she simply trained herself to feel safe there?

Like many Americans her age, Fern built her life around a single company that she relied on for everything: health insurance, housing, income, and security. At once, it all disappeared. U.S. Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, and with it, the rest of the city. It’s a difficult thing to picture, particularly in what comes after for the town’s residents. Without home or work as an anchor, Fern hits the road.

“Nomadland” tracks Fern’s life after Empire, which is loosely structured on Jessica Bruder’s eponymous novel. With Fern’s story, the film starts by acknowledging that our capitalist system isn’t enough to grant meaning to life, but then asks: what is?

The question is addressed by a number of characters, sometimes with startling directness. One of them is Swankie, an octogenarian nomad with terminal cancer. She plans to take one last trip when she still can, explaining to Fern that she refuses to spend her last days confined in a hospital. She reflects on the things she’s seen in her life—one sun-drenched canoe ride facing off a cliff, surrounded by a riverside mirage of flying swallows. It’s a scene that’s as breathtaking as the canoe ride itself surely was, but all we see is a closeup of Swankie’s eyes. They glaze over for a moment as the frame moves from a steady shot to erratic flurries around Swankie’s face like swallows nesting on cliffs. It’s as if she’s there.

Later, she sends Fern a video from her final trip. It’s all there—the cliffs, the swallows, and fragments of broken eggshells floating on the surface of the water. It’s just low-resolution, shaky cell phone footage. And it’s stunning. We’re witnessing what made life worth living for Swankie. Fern watches the video, and whispers while smiling, “You made it, Swankie.”

There are long shots and extended scenes like Swankie’s scattered through the film that gives the story a slower pace but together meander in a rhythm that makes every frame feel like experiencing life on the road with other nomads. There’s a constant level of respect in how the film treats the real-life nomads in its hybrid docu-drama format. It does not blame the victims for their downward trajectory and treats its subjects with respect and curiosity. Their misfortunes are not used to objectify or “other” them as often happens in films about an impoverished subculture. It shows people who manage to preserve their own dignity and, to a large extent, a sense of personal freedom in the face of systemic forces that are exploiting them.

Yet as it progresses, the film focuses far more on grief than poverty. Fern lives this way, it emerges, not for economic reasons. When Fern leaves her dying town after losing her husband, “it would be like it all never existed.” Her description of her old place is also telling, suggesting a desire for escape from ordinary life that preceded the van: “it was just desert, all the way to the mountains—there was nothing in our way.”

The sense of dramatization is strong here, and it makes sense as a fictional arc. Fern is on her quest for self-actualization that can only be found in solitary splendor with nature. But there could be no better character than the seemingly nomadic-by-choice Fern when it comes to lessening any political impact that “Nomadland” might have, and it seems like this is hardly an accident. The film is dealing with a subject matter that’s inescapably political, but somewhere along the road, those aspects of the story have been softened by people involved who are convinced that the best kind of cinema is ideology-free. The end goal is often the same—to create a personal tale that is ultimately inspirational rather than critical of the systemic horror show that lies just below the film’s distractingly beautiful facade.

Fern gets a temporary job at Amazon and is shown strolling through the warehouse carrying a single lightweight box, smiling and nodding to fellow workers who also work at a leisurely pace. That hardly matches descriptions of what it’s like to work at Amazon. Workers in Amazon warehouses don’t stroll around like Fern. They’re often forced into a relentless working pace with little pay and long hours.

Instead, “Nomadland” wants to remind us of a different side of America, where we can imagine our lives in a better light. If it’s sometimes said that no such thing as an “anti-war film” exists—the action and stakes of combat will make the whole enterprise seem exciting, no matter the intent—it may be even more true that there’s no such thing as an anti-road movie. It’s theoretically possible to imagine such a thing, in an America of factory-made interstates and anonymous strip malls, but the glories of the vast country are too much for most audiences to resist. “The road” has never exited American consciousness. Even when the road is a journey through barren scrubland and the loneliest, scariest, ugliest place in the world, it still compels us.

It’s a poisonous and idealized legacy, in many ways. But there’s no denying what “Nomadland” evokes—relief and boundless joy at mountains on the horizon after a vast stretch of flatlands, viewed through the windshield of a roaming vehicle, and thinking as Fern does—“to just keep on driving, right out into it.”

We have very few utopian films now, as dystopian visions have taken over. “Nomadland” has such startling emotional power because it’s a utopian perspective emerging out of a dystopian framework in a failing nation. It does not propose prescriptions to the systemic ills it depicts, but rather asks us to remember our common humanity. Zhao balances intimacy and incredible scope throughout the film, with impossibly wide shots that envelope the nomads in blood orange sunsets cut against extreme closeups of faces and eyes and antennas on butterflies. The end effect is hypnotic—a melancholy lyricism that enthralls in the same way you start to get a dizzy feeling when you spend most of your time on a road headed somewhere else. Where to, exactly? Nowhere in particular. The next place. There’s always a next place.