Empire, Nevada. 89405. A company town for the United States Gypsum Corporation, its population once standing at 750. That is, before the demand for sheetrock fell and the Gypsum shut down. Empire became a ghost town - its zip code disconnected, its residents scattered.
This we learn from the opening title card of Chloé Zhao's Nomadland, a gentle examination of the life of former Empire dweller Fern (Frances McDormand) and those she meets while travelling the American Midwest in hope of escaping the unrelenting grip of economic recession. The film draws from the real-world experiences of the older American nomads captured in Jessica Bruder's book of the same name. Their stories are made flesh through tender performances of real-world nomads and as such, there is no melodrama here. No falsity. Nomadland's quiet success shines from its ability to depict the forgotten, the ones downtrodden and left untethered from corporate America.
Zhao offers us a glimpse into Fern's life, more accurately, a single year of it. It is a life dictated by the Earth and her seasons. Opening at the turn of the New Year we see her working at an Amazon Distribution Centre, when the seasonal demand for temp-workers ceases she takes off to an annual gathering of nomads in warmer desert campgrounds. When it is their turn to pack up their vans and scatter across the country, it is the Badlands National Park that offersemployment and, later on, the Mount Rushmore Wall Drug. With each she finds new work, new friends, new lands. Directionless, not lost. And yet, it is never the places themselves that matter in Nomadland - it's the people. The mentors she seeks out or stumbles upon, the strangers slumped hungrily along the roadside, the old friends who offer a place to stay in hushed voices.
McDormand is as iridescent here as ever, unassuming among the non-professional actors and yet impossible to take your eyes from. Fern is resilient and resourceful, the hardships of van-life never deter her but stoicism is avoided. She is affected by the distance her nomadic life places between her and those things she holds in memory, the people whom she connects with but must ultimately say goodbye to. We see it as she quietly holds the jacket of her late husband up to her chest or watches a video from a friend far away of swallows flying across a dim screen with bright eyes. She struggles as anyone would, but she is resolute in her choices.
The camera follows Fern as a guide through her new lifestyle without sentimentality. Rarely static, the audience are moved through places of extreme beauty without stopping to wonder at the nature. It firmly deflects any hint of voyeurism. The nomads and the landscapes in which they find their home are instead captured with stark realism. You hear it too in the soundtrack. Composer Ludovico Einaudi had once spent seven days following the same hiking trail in the Italian Alps. From that experience came the album "Seven Days Walking" in 2019. It is from this, as well as a few tracks from earlier Einaudi works, that Zhao created her 'score' for Nomadland. The pieces are simple, with only piano, violin, viola and cello, but they are placed around Fern in a way that externalises her thoughts and her emotions. She is connected to the music as both swell and they learn how to live with nature fully.
Nomadland is meditative, therapeutic even. It shows you the pain that could prompt someone to embark on a journey like this but finds, at the end of it, the joy at refusing to live life according to the rules of others. Rules which are more punishing to those who have already endured unfairness in life. Its politics are there but, like so much of the film, they are situated in quiet moments and implications. And this is where the film ultimately succeeds: it is Nomadland's invocation of tonal symbiosis that has stayed with me since its credits rolled, and likely will stay with me as the new year turns.
Nomadland has a limited run at the Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema on December 4 and is currently scheduled for a UK release on February 21, 2021.