Zhao’s first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, were both set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and focused on characters played by first-time actors in stories deeply inspired by their own lives. The Rider, in particular, is a staggering work that’s indebted to the stubborn spirit of classic Westerns, but told from the uncommon viewpoint of a Lakota Sioux rodeo star struggling to recover from injury. Nomadland is inspired by real life too: It’s adapted from a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder about Americans living out of their vans post-2008. This realism is anchored to arresting work from McDormand, who delivers achingly compassionate, rambling monologues, as well as the sharp attitude that won her an Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
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Though Fern is the fictional center of the movie, her backstory is rooted in reality—she is from Empire, Nevada, which once served as a company town for the United States Gypsum Corporation, before it closed its local mine. An opening title card reveals the toll this shutdown took on the actual community’s livelihoods: The town emptied out so quickly that its zip code was discontinued.
Fern rebuilds an itinerant life from the ashes of that loss and the death of her husband. She pulls seasonal work at a local Amazon warehouse (where Zhao captures fascinating real-life footage), drives from campsite to campsite, and takes advice from fellow unsettled citizens. Zhao revels in the disparate connections that Fern forges, in a community that isn’t based on one location but on a state of existence.
Nomadland is not a particularly romantic movie. Though the cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, captures many a stunning vista on Fern’s travels (he even imitates, at one crucial moment, a famous shot from the classic Western The Searchers), Zhao also sheds light on the less glamorous parts of Fern’s new lifestyle. Personal hygiene, going to the bathroom, and other basic tasks such as doing laundry or staying warm: These are some of the mundane challenges that Fern faces, and Zhao cleverly injects them with life-and-death stakes.
Fern’s struggle to admit her own vulnerability, and her reluctance to delve into the lingering trauma of losing her job and her family, is the real tension of Nomadland, and McDormand plays that fear and sadness perfectly. Fern is not an excessively mean character, but she’s highly guarded, and there’s real drama in watching those barriers crumble over the course of her journey. Nomadland is a work of exploration, and not just across the sprawling American West. Fern is exorcising her darkest demons, which spring from the systemic neglect that has been visited on so many Americans in recent years. The odyssey makes Zhao’s film a transfixing mix of reckoning and catharsis.