Venice 2020 review: Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

Earlier this week Notturno screened, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary about life finding its way even through hardship and misery, about picking up life after pain. American director Chloé Zhao’s film Nomadland is a kindred spirit to Rosi’s work even if the people it talks about are different and the pain has other sources. And it is a documentary of sorts, a chronicle about something quintessentially American: life on the open road. A film about the beauty of the land, of the road, and of the people travelling along it, nomads who find a community out there in the deserts and the hills and the mountains of the American West. By necessity, but also by free will.

Empire, Nevada was the classic company town of the United States Gypsum Corporation, a mining company that mined in the area for nigh on nine decades. When the town’s production plant shuttered in January of 2011, within half a year the residents of Empire, all former employees of the company, had left and effectively turned Empire into a ghost town. One such resident is Fern (Frances McDormand), a free-spirited woman in her sixties who has lost her husband, her job, and essentially her whole life. She packs what she can into her van and sets off on the road to explore living outside of conventional norms as a modern-day nomad. She makes friends with likeminded people, people like Swankie and Linda May (both non-professional actors playing themselves), as well as Dave (David Strathairn), an equally elderly man she builds a tentative connection to, a bond she is scared of taking any deeper. She moves from place to place, from RV site to RV site, finding a community in people she might not see for weeks, months, or even years, paying for life by taking odd jobs here and there. There is a restlessness in Fern, a restlessness that comes from not having fully processed her husband’s death and the life she no longer shares with him. Dave could be the one to take her over the hill, but will she let him, and does she even want to?

Nomadland is a film about finding independence, and Fern finds this in the sweeping vistas of the West, in its rocks, its grasses, its trees, its night skies. But it is also a film about finding strength again after trauma, about getting up and dusting yourself off, and this is where the link with Notturno lies. Like Rosi, Zhao finds incredible beauty in a landscape filled with people that have gone through hardship. These nomads are by no means homeless (“I’m not homeless, just houseless,” says Fern). Their vans are their homes, but there is a hidden poverty in these RV parks all across the United States. Zhao doesn’t emphasize this, instead focusing on human connections and loosely connected groups of people who share circumstance, but there is a certain desolation in the images of a camp of vans in the middle of vast natural beauty. The film is based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, a non-fiction book by writer Jessica Bruder. The key word there is ‘surviving’, which underlines that this life ain’t all roses. Zhao doesn’t shy away from showing this but leaves the challenges and the discomfort open to the imagination of the viewer. What stands out in her soulful portrait of the American nomad is the creativity, the resilience, and the generosity of these people. They all have pain in their histories, have faced tremendous challenges in life, but they look forward, down the road, with an optimism that is beyond touching. They see freedom lie ahead of them in every mile they travel, and misery is just something in the rearview mirror.

Many of the people that populate these on-and-off communities are older people, often beyond retirement age. They work in beet harvesting, as camp hosts, in tourist attraction cafeterias, or at Amazon fulfillment centers. Physically demanding jobs often, for lousy pay, but it sustains their life on the road and their freedom. It is hard and presumptuous to judge or pity them from a screening room amidst the opulence of Venice. On the one hand anybody with a heart should be furious that they are in many ways forced into this life. But on the other, they seem contented and not at all in misery, so maybe we should just let them have that choice. As one of the characters says, “Being a nomad is a choice, not a circumstance.” The joy of working and being in nature outweighs the physical challenges and discomfort of working at these jobs at an advanced age. And Zhao still slyly manages to make a comment about employers like Amazon who make use of these people as seasonal workers. “See you next year,” they tell each other after the holiday season sales peak. One can see that as abuse of cheap labour by Amazon, or as the company giving nomads like Fern a chance to sustain their lifestyle. There is room for nuance in this discussion.

Nomadland is not really a film about acting, but it would be a crime not to address not just McDormand’s and Strathairn’s monumental work, but also the half-dozen or so non-professional actors that imbue Nomadland with a deep authenticity and give the film an honesty that emotionally overwhelms the viewer. When they tell their life stories, they really are their life stories, and you see it in every pore of their weathered faces. McDormand and Strathairn completely blend in, which makes the more conventionally structured scenes around their characters late in the film, which are based more on written dialogue and less on improv, feel earned because we have seen these two phenomenal actors be an integral part of the nomad community in the hour and a half that preceded these scenes. McDormand actually worked all those menial jobs alongside her non-professional co-stars to give her a chance to be herself in those moments when people like Linda May also had to be themselves, making their interplay all the more believable and grounded.

In the press kit for the film producer David Spears makes a great observation that really gets to the heart of Nomadland and the idea and message it wants to convey. Most of these nomads are people from the baby boomer generation, and they were all promised a nice life and a quiet retirement behind that storied white picket fence. Clearly that hasn’t worked out for all of them, and it still isn’t working out for others like them today (and the numbers are increasing). Zhao could have taken that idea and focused on the horrors and evils of American capitalism, but instead Nomadland focuses on the ruggedness of humanity and on a type of individualism that is so typically American. Like in her previous films Zhao grapples with the idea of the American dream, and with the way people who found out that it is a lie have reshaped their lives to create their own version of that dream. Life goes on, and personal freedom is out there to be had. The adaptability of people is strong, and if Nomadland shows anything it is that the human soul, when brought to the precipice, will always find a way to survive and connect to others, whether they live in the American West of Nomadland or the Middle East of Notturno. Nomadland is an ode to the human spirit with the warmth of a campfire where kindred souls share their stories and their lives.