Nomadland ★★★★½

This movie really took me by surprise. Ever since Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, forever destroying my childhood faith in the Academy’s good judgment, nothing makes me more predisposed to hate a movie than knowing it has Oscar buzz. I also had some moral qualms about Zhao’s use of real people — along with their real stories, real aspirations, and real tragedies — as fodder for her previous fictional film, The Rider. I fully expected to be in for more of the same here — some prettied up poverty porn designed to make bougie audiences feel virtuously enlightened and even more smugly superior to the film’s Red State subjects. 

But this is not a documentary about the “nomad” community in the U.S., although the fact that it’s based on a non-fiction sociological study would certainly lead you to think it was. It’s actually structured like a three-tone chord: the emotional/psychological register of Fern’s personal struggle with loss and mourning; the historical/political register of the economic insecurity besetting America’s aging population; and the poetic/philosophical register of its quiet meditations on mortality, attachment, and the sublimity of the Western landscapes that have shaped the American imagination since the 1800s. 

It’s the way in which Zhao manages to allow all three of those stories to resonate with each other that makes this such an ambitious and compelling piece of cinema. For instance, take the name of Fran’s hometown: Empire. Yes, it’s a real mining company town in Nevada that shut down during the Great Recession in 2008. But the fact that town’s lifespan coincided exactly with the heyday of the American “empire” itself is no coincidence. The compounding of Fran’s personal loss with the loss of a whole way of American middle class life suggests that no one can be truly “settled” here. Our desires for stability and permanence, Zhao seems to suggest, are always doomed to fail in a country so zealously dedicated to elevating profit and “progress” over people. 

But Zhao is at least as interested in poetry as she is in politics. She uses her cinematographer husband’s talent for capturing bodies in landscapes to its greatest effect here.  Like a testosterone-free Terence Malick, she shows us that the grandeur of the American frontier isn’t just about wide open spaces — it’s about the immensity of geological time. From the gypsum mine of Empire, to Linda May’s prized collection of semi-precious stones, to Dave’s tour guide lecture on sedimentary rock formations, geology itself becomes a dominant motif throughout the film, reminding us that those humble “rocks!” Fern finds on her walkabout have a much greater claim to permanence than any of us mortals do.

In The Rider, Zhao gave us an empathetic reimagining of the cowboy mythologies that still inspire working class young men in America’s heartland today. She also showed us how those myths are just as apt to injure and kill their believers as they are to provide them with some meaning and purpose. She does something similar in Nomadland too. By searching for the poetic truths beneath the libertarian cliches about the American character — its love of freedom, its rootlessness, its refusal to accept the “yoke” of corporate exploitation — Zhao wants to give us an emotional understanding of why those myths would continue to give dignity to the lives of those consigned to the margins of the new global economy. 

While she carefully avoids romanticizing the hard-scrabble challenges of living out of a van, she does an admirable job of showing exactly how someone like Fern or Bob Wells could romanticize that life, if that someone were inclined to overlook all the many downsides (not least among them shitting in a bucket). The scenes of Fern non-mystically being alone in nature have a far greater ring of truth and spiritual satisfaction than the Pottery Barn showroom of a house that her friend Dave tempts her to settle down in.

It’s not that Zhao wants to convince us that this hidden underclass represents a more “authentic” America than the one the California coastal elites inhabit. Rather she suggests that it’s by virtue of their practical embrace of the instability of life in the post-industrial, post-empire, gig economy of America that this group has a more direct understanding of how it all actually works (and doesn’t work) than those of us just watching it on Hulu from the comfort of our Crate & Barrel couches.

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