When American mining company USG closed down its gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada in 2011, the town just died. Everyone left. Total erasure. Even its zipcode disappeared.
The death of Empire is the birth of writer-director Chloé Zhao’s beautifully shot, poignant and deeply felt road movie – hand’s down the film of the year so far. Nomadland transforms that story of economic catastrophe into one of healing and reconnection that’s raw with emotional honesty and boasts an almost spiritual connection with the landscape. It may leave you wanting to jack it all in and head for the nearest national park (or failing that, a park).
Based loosely on reporter Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction account of the town’s fate, it follows Empire survivor, widow and one-time substitute teacher Fern (the ever-outstanding Frances McDormand somehow out-outstanding herself alongside a cast of mostly non-actors), as she picks up the pieces on the open road. Home is now her battered Ford Econoline van, which she has proudly kitted out, Xzibit-style, to max out the space (she’s fondly nicknamed it ‘Vanguard’). But as she slams the doors on her lock-up in the now wintry ghost town and hits the freeway, it’s hard to know if she’s a rolling stone or just human tumbleweed.
It’s that question which preoccupies Nomadland as Fern heads south, making ends meet with seasonal jobs in Amazon fulfilment centres, learning the art of stealth parking and hunkering down for freezing nights in gas station forecourts. Is she truly free or just a different kind of prisoner to the system? The people she bumps into along the way can’t decide if she’s ‘one of those lucky people who can travel anywhere’, as one observer tactlessly puts it, or a hobo in need of a roof for the night. Fern deals with both responses with a stoicism that speaks for a film with no time for self-pity. ‘Not homeless, just houseless,’ she says. ‘Not the same thing, right?’
As Nomadland shows, it’s really not. Fern finds people like Linda May (a real-life nomad playing herself) and then a whole tribe of them: The Nomad movement who gather IRL at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous at Quartzsite, Arizona, to share stories and listen to gentle figurehead Bob Wells pulling apart the cruelties of the system that they’ve all rejected – or that’s rejected them. They are life-long workhorses who have been shoved out to pasture, says Bob, and they have to find fellowship in each other.
The nomads are Fern’s new tribe: a self-help group, support network and training camp all rolled into one. Tyre-changing advice is dispensed and frank practical tips exchanged. When she is told to learn how ‘to take care of your own shit’, it’s very much not a metaphor. There’s even the whisper of romance with one of them, David (David Strathairn, the other established actor in the ensemble) – at least until he breaks her cherished crockery.
Spending time with these people as they warm themselves by campfires, sing the blues and share their hardscrabble stories in a way that makes them sound like celebrations is uplifting and – insofar as they’ve worked out how to live without wifi and we haven’t – a bit chastening. They’re people who attribute value to their lives in terms of what they’ve seen, not what they own. And who search for meaning in the rugged majesty of the landscape. They’ve somehow survived and flourished, despite never having been near a Wholefoods or downloaded Candy Crush.
This could all easily come over as hippie-dippie or hectoring, but it’s neither. As with her last film The Rider, a western masterpiece in its own right, Zhao is so expert at stitching together realism, moments of sheer transcendence and a lightly-worn radicalism in a way that feels nothing but unpatronising and empathetic. She’s helped by non-actors like May, Wells and Swankie, who bring all the natural authenticity of people acting out their daily lives on screen, and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who bathes the American landscape in a magic-hour glow. (If there was a website called CanyonHub, large chunks of Nomadland would soon be posted on it.)
But even the visual poetry of the California redwoods and the Arizona badlands can’t pull focus from McDormand. She’s magnetic as this quietly fierce avatar for economic anxiety, conveying both her deep sadness and her unquenchable faith in the future. Playing opposite so many first-timers and finding the different kind of rhythm required would be a challenge for some actors, but McDormand is so clearly at one with her cast mates, and this world as a whole, that those lines blur and then disappear. Nomadland is a journey that leaves Fern transformed, and you suspect McDormand too. You’ll feel the same way.
In US and Australian cinemas now. Streaming on Disney+ Star in the UK Apr 30.