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21 April 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 2:09pm

Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-nominated Nomadland is a powerful drama-documentary hybrid

Frances McDormand plays a flinty, 60-something widow, but is surrounded by real figures from the non-fiction book, playing themselves.

By Ryan Gilbey

In Albert Brooks’s 1985 comedy Lost in America, a married couple inspired by Easy Rider abandon the rat race and set off across the country in their RV. “I was on the road to nowhere,” says the frantic middle- manager played by Brooks. “Do you know the road? It’s a nowhere road. It goes nowhere! It just goes around in a circle. It’s the carrot on the stick and the watch when you’re 70.” A fortnight or so later, they’re back home, having blown all their savings.

Nomadland, adapted by the director Chloé Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book, looks at a generation of older lone Americans who pursue that lifestyle with more conviction. Following the 2008 recession, these economic “nomads” put the pedal ever so gently to the metal. Living out of their vans, they take seasonal jobs and meet up at a desert gathering for like-minded folk known as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. Theirs is mostly a life of parking-lot swap-meets and solitary contemplation. Screen-time means staring through the windshield at the tarmac ahead.

Zhao’s previous pictures, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, feature non-professionals playing versions of themselves in semi-fictionalised narratives. That approach continues here, with the addition of several well-known actors embedded among the real-life travellers. Fern (Frances McDormand) is a flinty, 60-something widow drawn to the peripatetic existence after losing her job in Nevada. She finds temporary positions where she can: camp-site caretaker, Amazon warehouse worker (“Great money!”). During her shift at a nursery, she wanders among piles of rocks while the radio plays “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”.

[See also: Why Promising Young Woman is trapped in the Noughties]

Her big love is her vehicle, which she has named “Vanguard”. When she shows off an interior modification that creates an extra work surface, she sounds as giddy as a schoolgirl twirling her new prom dress. Not that there would be room in the van to do that. The cardboard boxes Fern packs for Amazon would provide more bountiful living quarters. But challenge her choices at your peril. “I’m not homeless,” she tells a friend who expresses concern. “I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

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Star power can be unhelpful in a film with documentary tendencies, though there are precedents in Italian neorealism: Anna Magnani glowered convincingly among the proletariat in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. And besides, McDormand was never a vain or glitzy performer. No hair or make-up department is listed in the credits of Nomadland, which means that the bedhead is the actor’s own. As is the bed-face. She has the most eloquently lined skin this side of Charlotte Rampling: looking at her is like reading a map of the American West.

She is also intensely physical. No one has communicated so much nuance from beneath so many layers of clothing as she did in Fargo. As Fern, she pecks at conversation like a bird, and moves like a lizard, holding still as if to conserve energy before darting off suddenly. Her bravest choice is to embody the character’s passion without always rendering it palatable. Stopping at her sister’s barbecue, Fern is instantly itchy in those bourgeois surroundings, but McDormand shows what a pain in the neck she must be. Her relatives came for a beer and a burger; they didn’t expect a side order of peevish remarks on the evils of property.

[See also: The ghost of James Gandolfini in Enough Said]

On her travels, she meets Dave (David Strathairn), whose deferential, well-meaning nature acts on her as a mysterious irritant. Orbiting around the pair are figures from Bruder’s original book, playing themselves: Linda May, a grandmother with an eager, sunny smile; Bob Wells, the van-dwellers’ guru, sparkling beneficently from behind a Grizzly Adams beard; and the nomad known as Swankie, who has the cotton-wool hair and bathtime-pink face of John Updike. Her reflection on nature and mortality recalls Rutger Hauer’s “time to die” speech in Blade Runner, and provides this low-key film with the nearest thing to an emotional crescendo.

The picture’s tone is melancholy, but not humourless. In one scene, Fern walks through a desolate town where the only cinema is showing an Avengers movie. The punchline of sorts is that Zhao’s upcoming film is the Marvel fantasy Eternals.

Nomadland has been hoovering up awards and is predicted to win big at the Oscars, though this is not the usual outcome for a drama-documentary hybrid in the Iranian tradition. It is almost as if something catastrophic has occurred in the past year to make audiences receptive to its ideas. Whatever could it be?

[See also: Seaspiracy: the overfishing documentary that became entangled in its own net]

Near the end of the film, Zhao positions the camera in the doorway of a house, peering out at Fern as she tramps into the distance. That shot knowingly invokes the final image of The Searchers, except that here we don’t stay inside the building, as that movie did when John Wayne returned to the desert. Instead, the camera follows Fern, leaving bricks and mortar behind to join this uneasy rider on the road. The message is clear: four walls bad, four wheels good. l

“Nomadland” is streaming on Disney+ from 30 April, and in cinemas from 17 May

Nomadland (12A)
dir: Chloé Zhao

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This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical