The first thing that dies in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (which will be in cinemas from 17 May) is a town called Empire, in Nevada. The life-supporting sheetrock plant shuts down, the people leave, even the zip code vanishes. A woman called Fern, played by Frances McDormand, takes up residence in a van. She spends a Christmas season working at an Amazon warehouse, and hopes for jobs elsewhere. She doesn’t want to go too far south, until one bitterly cold night she changes her mind, and takes off for Arizona.
Before she leaves, she bumps into a girl she used to teach when she worked part-time in a school. They happily remember some lines from Macbeth (‘All our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death’). Shakespeare continues to be important: later on, Fern tries to cheer a young man up by reciting a sonnet to him, the one she used as her wedding vow: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ the poem asks. Not really, is the answer. Summers fade, but people and poems are supposed to last for ever. Or, at least, the fading is meant to be carefully managed.
Her ex-pupil’s mother asks Fern if she’s still homeless, and Fern corrects her. She’s not homeless, just houseless. The line is from Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland (2017), the book on which the film is based. Its subtitle is telling: ‘Surviving America in the 21st Century’. Bruder spent several years meeting up with members of what she called ‘a new kind of wandering tribe’. ‘People who never imagined being nomads,’ she wrote, ‘are giving up traditional houses and apartments to live in … vans, secondhand RVs, school buses, pickup campers, travel trailers, and plain old sedans. They are driving away from the impossible choices that faced what used to be the middle class.’ Or, the film suggests, what used to be the respectable working class.
Parts of the film are frankly documentary. Fern meets people on the road or in camper parks, and they tell her their stories. Some characters from the book (Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells) play themselves in the movie, with impeccable conviction. The stories often concern illness and death, grief and loss, the conditions that led to a life on the road, and there is often bravery and wit in the telling, a refusal to give in to the despair that often threatens. One woman describes how her husband died before he could take his new sailboat to water. She couldn’t bear the thought of the boat never leaving their backyard, so she took it away – to the desert.
Gradually we realise that the film is really about Fern, its fictional heroine. She is a person, not just a focal point. In McDormand’s marvellous incarnation she is difficult to understand, tight, untalkative, but also helpful to others, and given to smiling occasionally in ways that contradict her dryness. She likes people, it seems, but not society or stability. The American dream, as seen here, is not about money or fame, it’s about space, the absence of others. When Fern describes, with some nostalgia, the house she and her husband owned in Nevada, she says it looked out to ‘desert, desert, desert, all the way to the mountains. There was nothing in our way.’ Later, when she returns for a last goodbye, the camera shows us exactly this view.
We see the reverse side of Fern’s story quite late in the film. Her van needs major repairs and she doesn’t have enough money to pay for them. She visits her sister’s family to pick up a loan, and is annoyed when her brother-in-law describes her as someone who decided to ‘chuck everything and hit the road’. But what else is it she’s done? In a calmer conversation her sister reproaches her for not wanting to be part of a family that needed her: ‘You left a big hole by leaving.’ ‘It’s always what’s out there that is most interesting,’ she says. Interesting for Fern, she means.
At another point, Fern goes to see an old nomad comrade who is now settled with his family in a comfortable house a long way from the wild. He asks her if she wants to stay – there’s plenty of room – but she doesn’t consider accepting the offer. She does seem to think about why she can’t, and there’s a wonderful sequence that shows her walking round the house when everyone else is asleep. She looks at the baby’s toys on the floor, touches the keys of the piano, sits at a table in the dining room and looks out of the window. The camera is behind her, we see the furniture, her silhouette, the window and, barely visible, the world beyond. We realise that this form of life is too tidy and too enclosed for her, that ‘out there’ is mentally too far away.
But Fern is also grieving, and the van and the road are a way of coping with her husband’s death. When a woman asks her if she’s married, she doesn’t answer in the past tense. ‘I am,’ she says, ‘but my husband died.’ Being constantly on the road is a way of not really leaving the place where his death occurred – it’s not somewhere else, it’s not a new start. In another sequence, the camera does all the talking. She visits the abandoned sheetrock factory, walks through various offices, past a row of closed garage doors, and then arrives at her old house, where nothing but litter is left. At the end of the movie, a title card tells us that it’s ‘dedicated to the ones who had to depart’. To Fern’s husband, of course, and to others whose deaths are mentioned in the stories we hear. But also to all those, in the movie and in life, who could only survive America by never stopping, never staying still.