The Current Debate: The Romanticism of “Nomadland”

Chloé Zhao’s "Nomadland" is an elegiac, moving tribute to the unsettled Americans of the 21st-century.
Leonardo Goi

Chloé Zhao’s third feature, Nomadland, is a tale of restlessness and rootlessness set in the American West. It stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a sixty-something widow who’s lost her husband to cancer and her house to the recession, and now roams the country aboard an RV, working all kinds of seasonal, menial odd-jobs to scrape together a living. Written by Zhao and based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, it’s a richly textured account of life on America’s fringes, and an eye-opening portrait of the many modern nomads who, as per Slant’s Chris Barsanti, try “to carve out a place for [themselves] in a society that doesn’t leave space for people not defined by steady careers or well-rooted homes.”

The citizens of Nomadland are no strangers to pain and sorrows, but as Stephanie Zacharek argues over at TIME, “it’s joy, not suffering, that defines them—the joy of community and of self-sufficiency, of making do with what you have and bartering, when possible, for things you need.” Which begs a crucial question: enamored as it is with Fern and her fellow drifters, does Nomadland offer us a far too romantic account of their lifestyle? Does the film veer close, as Richard Roeper suggests at The Chicago Sun-Times, “to being an overly sentimental and sanitized slice of the nomad life?” 

Arguably, Peter Bradshaw offers at The Guardian, Nomadland “is not angry enough” about the economic conditions that lead—or force—Fern and others to hit the road. It’s a point echoed by The Ringer’s Adam Nayman, who contends that the film’s biggest issue “might be how benign it is.”

In her admirable attempt to rebut Trump-era stereotypes about American life and character, [Zhao] ends up draining away some of the tension and live-wire emotion that could have made the movie extraordinary. At its heart, Nomadland is a road movie, but too many scenes feel stuck in neutral—subtle and delicate to the point of paralysis.

You may argue—as David Sims does at The Atlantic—that all the lyricism conjured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards (via the sprawling, humbling landscapes of the West) is undercut by Zhao’s emphasis on the less glamorous parts of Fern’s routine (doing laundry, staying warm, looking for food and shelter), “mundane challenges that Fern faces, and Zhao cleverly injects with life-and-death stakes.” But this alone doesn’t dispel the worry that Nomadland might be all too timid when addressing the dire working conditions Fern and others face in their seasonal gigs—as exemplified in an early and largely placid account of Fern’s stint at an Amazon plant.

Still, to expect a stronger, more explicit critique of capitalism is to ask something Nomadland never set out to achieve. And though this is clearly no fault of Zhao's, or any indication of her stances toward the socioeconomic plight of Fern and fellow nomads, it is quite frankly baffling that the marketing team of a film so concerned with homelessness and food insecurity should choose to lavish journalists with food items and gifts instead of donating to and supporting people who are struggling to survive the pandemic.

For all its fierce sadness, Anthony Lane writes at The New Yorker,  “Nomadland is not primarily a protest,” and “there is no preaching or philosophizing,” Dana Stevens echoes at Slate, “about the exploitive nature of modern labor.” The drifters populating Nomadland are by and large refugees of the last recession, but as Alison Willmore reminds us at Vulture, Zhao “refuses to reduce them merely to byproducts of our increasingly callous capitalist system.” In fact, as Rolling Stone’s K. Austin Collins astutely observes, “one of the prevailing questions of this film—one of the things that catapults it above mere liberal experiment—is the question of choice:”

Giving us this lifestyle as, in part, a lifestyle—a choice—might run counter to the overwhelming sense of economic despair that leaves a great many people choiceless and, in terms of politics, voiceless. In Nomadland, however, it comes off as welcome complication. United and collaborative as they are in this life, the people of this film are individuals. They all have their own reasons, their own experiences.

And Zhao happily trails behind them, far more interested in observing her drifters than in parceling out grand moral statements about their condition. Indeed, the film exhibits what The Playlist’s Jessica Kiang aptly calls a “docu-fictional, journalistic interest” for its self-marginalized community. Anyone familiar with Zhao’s body of work will recognize the same approach in her two previous features, ostensibly works of fiction cast with real people. In Nomadland too, Zhao recruits real-life nomads (some of whom appear in Bruder’s book). It’s a choice that pays dividends, for it allows “those on the margins,” as Katie Rife remarks at The A.V. Club, “to tell their stories on their own terms,” while conferring, per The A.V. Club’s film editor A.A. Dowd, “an authenticity, as opposed to a tourist’s exoticism, to Zhao’s depiction of their world.” 

How should we then square Frances McDormand within this careful balance of fact and fiction? Does her presence threaten the purity of Zhao’s approach, in a misguided bid for Hollywood prestige? I agree with Rolling Stone’s K. Austin Collins that “McDormand has always seemed like the rare Oscar winner who’d be at home in most of our living rooms, rather than distractingly glamorous or magnetic.” But for all the less-than-idyllic chores Zhao puts her through, Justin Chang warns at The L.A. Times, “the one thing [McDormand] doesn’t do, and perhaps can’t do, is vanish into her own skin.” And yet,

…this inability, far from proving fatal to Zhao’s experiment, is utterly crucial to its success. “Nomadland” isn’t just a chronicle of lives on the margins; in showing us individuals who have retreated from the mainstream, blazed their own trails and forged their own identities, it becomes its own hauntingly idiosyncratic act of creation. McDormand doesn’t disappear into Fern; she’s revealed by Fern, and Fern is revealed by her. The innate kinship between character and actor is as obvious as their shared first initial.

In a film where “bearing witness,” to borrow again from Katie Rife, “applies both to Fern… and the film itself,” McDormand listens far more than she talks. And by ceding the floor to her nonprofessional costars, Demi Kampakis argues at Reverse Shot, she also helps “coaxing effortless and authentic performances from them through a palpable attentive empathy.”

More crucially, McDormand’s Fern is the prism through which the film’s contradictions refract. Like Fern, a character in whom the thirst for connection and freedom are constantly at war, Nomadland seesaws between a conventional, archetypal road movie and something far more ethereal. In the words of A.O. Scott at The New York Times, “the nomad existence is at once an acknowledgment of human impermanence and a protest against it,” and this is the conflict on which the whole film ultimately hinges.

To some degree, “Nomadland” wishes to be settled—wants not necessarily to domesticate its heroine, but at least to bend her journey into a more-or-less predictable arc. At the same time, and in a fine Emersonian spirit, the movie rebels against its own conventional impulses, gravitating toward an idea of experience that is more complicated, more open-ended, more contradictory than what most American movies are willing to permit.

Toward the end, RV guru Bob Wells tells Fern the greatest thing about being a nomad is that there are no real goodbyes, only “See you down the road.” It’s a lesson Nomadland understands all too well. Unanchored to a traditional dramatic blueprint, and drifting in synch with its characters, Zhao’s film doesn’t end—it only intimates a restless journey that needs no big moment to shatter you.

The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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