Called it. A few hours ago, the Venice Film Festival came to a close with a widely anticipated announcement: Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland had won its top jury prize, the Golden Lion. As big festival victories go, this one felt more than a little expected, even bordering on the inevitable. The film was unveiled yesterday at both Venice and Toronto, and the reviews from both have been universally glowing. (It presently sits at the top of Metacritic’s aggregate rankings for the year, though that may change once more critics weigh in.) Yet even before a single review went live, Zhao’s picture had an air of acclaim around it. This is, after all, the American movie embraced this year by all three of the major fall festivals, Venice, Toronto, and next New York, which has slotted it into the coveted “centerpiece” position of its lineup. If one film looked, from a distance, like the prestige art-house torchbearer of the autumn, this was it.
It helps, of course, that Nomadland (Grade: A-) is genuinely terrific: a lean, sad, richly textured portrait of life on the American outskirts. Zhao has made her young, auspicious career on investigating the ignored pockets and marginalized subcultures of this sprawling nation. Her last film, The Rider, cast rodeo cowboys in South Dakota as lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, acting out a scripted but largely un-sensationalized drama built from details of their real biographies. There’s an element of that, too, in Nomadland, which Zhao adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book about older Americans who have adopted an itinerant way of life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, moving around the country in campers in search of employment. Several of the subjects of the book appear as themselves in the movie, which confers an authenticity, as opposed to a tourist’s exoticism, to Zhao’s depiction of their world.
Our entryway is the entirely fictional Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow living in economically decimated Nevada. Fern, who’s lost her husband to cancer and the roof over her head to the recession, lives in an RV (“I’m houseless, not homeless,” she insists), and works seasonally at an Amazon shipping facility. But once the holidays are over, the job opportunities in her ghost town dry up, and Fern hits the road, chasing work and better weather from one encampment of fellow “nomads” to the next.
As this flinty, self-sufficient, and geographically unmoored woman, McDormand provides a blend of toughness and vulnerability that’s a perfect fit for the material. Fern doesn’t pity herself, and how could we? She’s played by Frances McDormand! If this isn’t necessarily the star’s best performance, it’s certainly one of the smartest deployments of that unstudied quality she’s brought to numerous Middle American heroines; she blends seamlessly into an ensemble of unknowns and nonprofessionals. The movie doesn’t impose contrivances onto Fern’s journey; there’s a whisper of a potential romance with a fellow nomad (David Strathairn, nicely and typically undertstated), but it doesn’t play out in the easy, expected way. Zhao, a neorealist in the best sense, seems to understand that artificial plot developments might betray the truth of the milieu she’s been welcomed into as a storyteller. And that absence of a dramatic blueprint mostly proves liberating, though there are times when a viewer might wonder where this heavily observational film is headed.
Zhao, who made Nomadland before feeding herself into the maw of the Marvel industrial complex (her Eternals was supposed to open this fall, before COVID chased it off the calendar), has made a major leap forward. She directs with a graceful economy, a flow from scene to scene—and town to town, and week to week—that mimics the transient nature of Fern’s lifestyle. Which it to say, there might be some of the nomad spirit in her refusal to linger too long in a moment or on an event. At the same time, Zhao savors the mythic beauty of the changing landscapes and seasons, finding in them an expression of both the loneliness and freedom of a life on the road. Eventually, a melancholy overtakes the picture like clouds rolling in across its vast stretches of sky, and it feels like both a force as natural as weather and an expression of the feelings Fern never entirely articulates. For as much as Nomadland resists pat pathologizing, it keeps us hanging on the character’s emotional guardedness, and on what it might say about her embrace of solitude and reinvention.
Zhao understand that this way of life is a choice for some and a necessity for others. Sometimes, it becomes both, as people discover their amenability to being able to pick up and go, untethered to a place. The filmmaker doesn’t quite romanticize the migratory way, but she does seem to selectively privilege its sagest salt-of-the-Earth proponents. The only characters in this movie that even mildly flirt with unflattering behavior or ugly traits are Fern’s relatives, who condescend to her choices. (“I think Fern’s part of an American tradition,” one of them says.) There are no hints, either, of our troubling political present—remove fleeting glimpses inside the Amazon machine, and this film could conceivably be set anytime over the past 30 or 40 years. Then again, we’re mostly seeing characters who live outside the parameters of mainstream American life. Maybe the total absence of culture-war signifiers is realistic.
It’s kind of fascinating that Nomadland won at Venice one year after Joker. Both are, in their own very different ways, attempts to get at something essential about the American character—and also at the way that American institutions fail our most vulnerable. (Perhaps it goes without saying that the conclusions drawn this time are a bit less pessimistic and a lot less apocalyptic.) But Nomadland is no screed. Zhao remains an observer, not a soap box polemicist; she weaves her political conscience into the fabric of her environmental portraits, allowing larger points to reveal themselves organically. That puts her work in conversation with filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik, revealing truths about America by zooming in close on its margins, and those eking out an existence there, one day and gig at a time, or passing across them like a rolling stone. Maybe sometimes the expected winner is the right one.