Go-her-own-way director Chloé Zhao closes out her exceptional trilogy about the dispossessed and left-behind in the modern American West with Nomadland, a cool, contemplative look at contemporary American outcasts whose foothold in society grows more precarious with every passing year. Zhao acutely observed the travails, bad luck and diminishing prospects of modern Lakota Indians and an injured young rodeo rider in, respectively, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), both of which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight. Here, the Chinese-born, Western-educated Zhao raises her ante by collaborating with Frances McDormand, in the latter’s first big-screen outing since winning her second Oscar, three years ago, for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s an observant, simple, contemplative work, one uninterested in manufacturing melodrama or hyped-up incident, but rewarding for its illumination of Americans who represent societal afterthoughts, mostly older working people left behind in backwaters and on the sidelines with no prospects at all.
And speaking of prospects, what could be more plausible than Zhao’s next project, which, in fact, is already in the can and set for release on February 12? Nothing less than the next Marvel entry, The Eternals, which represents one of the most extreme gear shifts for any director ever. Two or three days of shooting on that would no doubt have covered the costs for all three of Zhao’s films to date.
In a literal sense, Nomadland covers considerably more ground than did the director’s previous two outings, as McDormand’s Fern puts quite a few miles on her RV while passing through, and sometimes staying a while in, a number of Western states. Left jobless when a U.S. Gypsum plant is shut down, the sixtyish woman sees no obvious employment prospects. So, grimly joking that she’s just “houseless,” not homeless, she hits the road and, it being holiday season, finds a job in an Amazon plant sealing up boxes for shipment.
The dark, acerbic tone McDormand is so good at hitting provides a welcome lift from the grim tedium from time to time, as does the bluntly realistic sight of Fern/McDormand having to bluntly learn how to “deal with your own shit” with the help of a bucket. This makes for a funny scene, but this is no comedy, nor does it feel like an occasion for a film star slumming amongst an assortment of real denizens of society’s outcasts. It takes only a scene or two for the actress to blend right in with the crusty, sometimes forlorn, but mostly resilient plebeians.
The women among them tend toward a polite gentleness, an acceptance of things that’s often flecked with rays of optimism and folksy humor. By contrast, a fair number of the men seem to favor little raps or self-illuminating stories they’ve likely refined over the months and years. For many, living with little money and no prospects on the road and at RV parks has become a way of life; they are, as one puts it, like “work horses out to pasture.” This is a fluid community of old Vietnam War vets with PTSD, readers of Dr. Jack Kervorkian’s book on how to do yourself in, people with no prospects, and generous souls who invite any and all to their tables.
Nomadland is interested in the forlorn, the left-behinds, the no-hopers; they have always been with us, but perhaps not this conspicuously since the 1930s. While the life trajectories of the people onscreen are not delineated in much detail, the dominant impression, starting with Fern, is of once-stable, income-producing people whom American society has failed. This is a sad tale, gentle rather than intent on finger-pointing or sociological analysis; it’s not a political tract but it’s hard to imagine many people watching this film and not coming out of it feeling that there’s something in the country—and perhaps the world–quite out of alignment.
There are ways in which I somewhat prefer Zhao’s two previous films, mainly because they center on people whose Western lifestyles remain connected to those of many previous generations of Americans—cowboys, oil drillers, ranchers and farmers, homesteaders, anyone who works with animals—but now have been bypassed by technology and utterly changed times. The homeless, rootless people on view in Nomadland summon up memories of the itinerants and vagabonds of the Great Depression years, but at least two factors are different: Many of the modern-era vagabonds possess vehicles, even if they have no money, and the dominant personalities tend to be women, although that impression could simply stem from Zhao having decided to focus more upon them (the only other name actor here, David Strathairn, plays a taciturn guy clearly interested in Fern but who gets nowhere).
There has been nothing else in recent cinema that resembles Zhao’s modest but captivating trilogy about the modern American West. So while some of us might lament such an individualistic filmmaker so quickly choosing to join the most mainstream and commercially dominant production entity in the world, there’s something about her resilience and sense of purpose that provides hope that she won’t forever abandon her roots, which are so firmly planted in the often inhospitable soil of the modern West.
Nomadland, from Searchlight Pictures, world premiered Friday simultaneously at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. It has a December 4 release date.