‘Nomadland’ Is a Powerful Elegy for an America Where Economic Refugees Hit the Road

Nomadland” is both a requiem and journey, lamenting a country that is no more while taking in the freedom of the open road. This is a vast nation full of wondrous landscapes. Through those landscapes wander the Americans abandoned by a rapidly changing world and merciless economy. Frances McDormand plays the kind of role that takes on the form of a guide. Her face alone becomes a portrait of the United States rarely ever depicted in a mainstream movie. Director Chloé Zhao directs with a confident, lyrical eye, constructing something closer to a cinematic tone poem. Together these artists hit the highway and come back with something truly special.

Fern (McDormand) embodies a story all too common in what used to be the industrial zones of the country. She once lived with her late husband in Empire, Nevada. Then the gypsum plant closed in 2011, jobs became extinct, and in less than a year even the zip code for the town was discarded. Now Fern lives in her van and does seasonal work in a vast Amazon factory which pays just enough to survive on noodles. For someone of Fern’s age, who had become confident of her life in Empire, getting by is a struggle composed of endlessly uncertain days. Her qualifications and training are zilch, and while she’s a hard worker finding anything stable is a fantasy. So a fellow wanderer introduces Fern to an emerging “nomad” culture. It’s a society of sorts made-up of people who have decided to form makeshift communities, park where they please (when they can), and provide support. Many seem to be in the upper middle age range. While Fern builds connections with them, including Dave (David Strathairn), something continues to compel Fern to keep further down the road. She picks up whatever work she can, passes through sights of great beauty, as if running from the past, but grieving for a lost time.

Zhao’s technique relies on the film taking on the very character of its protagonist. The very disorientation of Fern’s situation and her gradual adaptation to life on the road become more essential than any by-the-book plot. Zhao is more interested in telling this story through the very life of an individual and in the tones of desert twilights, snow-capped valleys, and how lush forests are not vacation spots for the nomads, but lifelines. There is a delicate, piercing authenticity to the scenes where Fern sits and talks with other travelers. Making the effect even stronger is the fact that Zhao cast non-actors, such as real-life nomad Linda May, who introduces Fern to the wider nomad subculture. As with many discoveries these days, all it takes is one YouTube video of a group organizer touting the necessity to escape from the tyranny of the dollar. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also shot Zhao’s highly acclaimed “The Rider,” makes the desert and nomad camps dreamlike and gritty at the same time. Like Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” the very lyricism of the American landscape comes to life, while hard stories are lived within it.

The screenplay by Zhao is based on the book “Nomadland” by Jessica Bruder, which is an immersive work of reporting on what amounts to economic refugees of the Great Recession. It’s a chronicle of people now living in RVs and modified vans, never imagining the American dream would come to this. Many have lost hope in capitalism and would rather risk living wherever they can find work and space. Zhao then hones the ideas and testimonials into a narrative with Fern. She’s not written as to inspire pity or to deliver big speeches. McDormand, now nominated for a Golden Globe and sure to get an Oscar nomination as well, plays the role with quiet strength. This isn’t a movie heroine, but a real person adjusting to a new reality. McDormand has the look of a Norman Rockwell figure but after the whole vision of America has decayed. One senses the hidden pride when she assures someone she’s not homeless, just “houseless,” but she never descends into despair. Yet her journey becomes something worthy of a modern-day John Steinbeck. The Amazon warehouse where Fern works looks like a frightening cold vision of the future. She clocks in, seems content, but returns to a world where if you park in the wrong space a security guard can kick you out. No dialogue is needed when she takes a stroll through empty ghost towns where industry died long ago. She offers a light to a young hitchhiker playing a guitar, and while they exchange kind, even sad words, there’s not a hint of melodrama. Fern cleans rest area toilets in another stop along the way, and while travelers will be rude, she takes it with stride. This is just her existence right now. More important is to have where to sleep and to keep going.

“Nomadland” is one of the best recent films to capture the very spirit of the times for those left behind by the economy. We don’t hear terms like “working class” that much anymore in popular culture or film, and “middle class” is used by politicians to refer to anyone who isn’t rich. Fern and her fellow nomads can’t even be really classified as “low-income,” because what they make might not even cover rent. This is a “The Grapes of Wrath” for the 2020s, except there’s no hint of idealism or even the hope of a better tomorrow. One of the nomad camp organizers speaks in a kind of anarchist rhetoric about defying the tyranny of the dollar. But no one here is taking on the system, just figuring out how to slip through its cracks and survive with some semblance of freedom. There’s a reason why most of the RV and van dwellers seem to be in their late 50s or mid-60s. In the mightiest country in the world, to be a certain age during an economic crisis and without privilege means the danger of being left in limbo. There is a peace and even sense of joy in moments where Fern makes friends among the nomads, or spends time at markets where goods are exchanged and sold, but Zhao subtly captures the mood of there also being no safety net.

For Fern there is a hint of better things with Dave, played by David Strathairn with that no nonsense likeability he’s mastered so well. Dave is also a widower with his own baggage from the past. But instead of writing a predictable for these two, Zhao uses them to explore the complexities of individual lives. Fern won’t say it, but she does mourn for what was lost when Empire crashed in 2011. There is an elegant montage of her in a forest, floating in a river, savoring nature. Yet it’s easy to sense it’s balm for the pain. McDormand gives a master class in this film on how to act with sheer expressions, some so subtle where a mere look says everything, or the way she walks alone down a campground and gazes at four wheelers passing by in the distance. The final moments of “Nomadland” provide no answers, just a contemplation about the empty offices and homes left in a changing country.

“Nomadland” arrives already acclaimed and with four Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture. They are all well-deserved. For viewers there’s the added bonus that it will premiere on Hulu at the same time as opening in some select cities. It’s a very human film, where for almost two hours it achieves something special in cinema, it places us in the shoes of others. We feel as if we are with Fern on her uncharted journey. Zhao firmly establishes herself as an important emerging director, capable of making a vibrant film about real people as they are living now. Movies like this are important, because in a rapidly shifting era, this is a portent of a road many more lives will be forced to embark on.

Nomadland” releases Feb. 19 on Hulu and in select cities.