March 2021

Arts & Letters

Drawn to the drift: Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’

By Shane Danielsen
The award-winning film about America’s itinerants steers away from the darker stories of the working poor

Many books have attempted to interrogate American decline, but few have done so with the diligence, attention and granular detail of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by the journalist and essayist Barbara Ehrenreich. Published in 2001, it details the year and a half its author spent undercover in the country’s heartland, working a month at a time at a succession of unskilled, minimum-wage jobs: as a waitress, a chambermaid, a nursing-home aide, a Walmart clerk…

Set amid the dot-com boom, in the waning days of Bill Clinton’s second term, the world it describes predates the rise of Amazon, the formation of Uber, the decentred uncertainties of the gig economy. Yet Ehrenreich’s central thesis – that capitalism is designed to ensure that those on its lowest rungs, the “working poor”, can never improve their lot – is as true today as it was then. “I grew up hearing over and over,” she writes, “to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success: ‘Work hard and you’ll get ahead’ or ‘It’s hard work that got us where we are.’ No one ever said that you could work hard – harder even than you ever thought possible – and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”

This is the American way. As I write this, Republicans in the House are trying to block legislation that would raise the national minimum wage to the princely sum of US$15 per hour, a move they claim would unfairly “punish job-creators”. Yet, as a piece in The New York Times noted, even if the bill is passed, it still “will not bring a family, or even a single person, to an adequate living standard”.

It’s this America, the America of no savings and no health insurance, in which Chloé Zhao’s acclaimed third feature, Nomadland, is set. It’s based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name – itself an extension of her 2014 essay in Harper’s titled “The End of Retirement”, which described “a demographic that in the past several years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans”.

After living for decades in Empire, a small town in western Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) has her life upended by a series of sudden, crushing blows. Like many rural communities, Empire was built around a particular industry, and when the local gypsum plant is closed in January 2011, the town shuts down as well; within six months, it’s even been stripped of its postcode. Not long after, Fern’s husband dies. Unemployed and childless, she abandons Empire and begins living in her van, driving across the country to find seasonal work, either harvesting beets or cleaning campsites, or in a succession of Amazon “fulfillment centres”. (And let’s pause a moment here to acknowledge the savage irony of that term.)

It’s a lonely, precarious existence, but Fern maintains a defiantly chipper front throughout. She’s not homeless, she insists, merely “houseless”. A former substitute teacher, she quotes scraps of Shakespeare, and sings folk songs to herself as she drives. McDormand plays her as a chancer: game, alert, eager to be useful. “I like work,” she tells a woman at an unemployment office. “I need work.” She wants to stay close to the Nevada she loves, but winter is deepening; the nights are getting colder. In the end she has no choice but to head south, to Arizona, where at least she won’t freeze to death in her van.

En route, she discovers an entire community of displaced people like herself: itinerant workers, fed-up retirees, dreadlocked hippies, principled libertarians – all drawn to the “drift”, the circumscribed, sort-of freedom the open road represents. Played by non-pro actors, these aren’t “characters” in the conventional sense; most of these people – such as noted RV advocate Bob Wells – are simply portraying themselves. At these moments the film veers close to a documentary, and a good one, since much of what they have to say is compelling. Linda May’s monologue, about deciding not to commit suicide only after looking into the eyes of her two dogs (“I just couldn’t do that to them. And then I thought, well, I can’t do that to me, either”), is succinct and quietly heartbreaking. (A few scenes later, Fern is momentarily tempted by an abandoned puppy, but quickly walks away and doesn’t look back. She knows only too well that having a pet to look after could well mean the difference, for her, between survival and going under.)

Another woman, “Swankie”, dying of cancer and looking back on the highlights of her life, doesn’t cite time spent with a lover or partner, or a fondly remembered holiday, or even a favourite meal, but simply intimations of the wonder of the natural world: glimpsing a family of moose by a river in Idaho, or being surrounded by a flock of swallows while kayaking in Colorado. “All around me, reflecting in the water, so it looked like I was flying with [them] and they were under me and over me and all around me… If I’d died right then, at that moment, I’d be perfectly fine.” Her tone is awed, grateful; the moment plays like a homespun variation on Rutger Hauer’s famous speech at the end of Blade Runner (“All those moments will be lost in time”).

However, as the narrative focuses more narrowly on Fern, and on the tentative, almost grudging bond she forms with another nomad she encounters along the way – a widower named Dave (David Strathairn)  – the film becomes at once more and less than it was. More, because events both deepen her characterisation and complicate our feelings about her. The issue, we learn, is not so much that Fern can’t afford to live in a house (though in fact she’s barely solvent), as that she won’t: freedom, not security, is what matters to her. And less, because it flattens all that lived experience, all those other histories and voices, in order to fit the template of a standard movie romance, since from the moment Dave appears, there’s nary a chance that he and Fern won’t get together. How could they not? They’re the only recognisable faces in this entire movie.

It’s regrettable, because both McDormand and Strathairn are actors who typically improve every film they’re in. Here, though – and despite the particular care and intelligence of McDormand’s performance – they feel faintly extraneous, grafted onto this milieu and its inhabitants. Likewise, the ambiguity of their relationship (is it a friendship? Is it romantic?) feels like a distraction from the deeper issues the film has feinted at, yet which it finally shies away from, much in the same way it avoids ever placing its protagonist in real danger, or even confronting her with a genuine obstacle. Everyone Fern encounters along the way is warm, welcoming, generous and kind. No one is ever hostile or aggressive, or advances a point of view that’s less than admirable or sympathetic. At one point her van breaks down, necessitating a repair she can’t afford, and not only does her sister lend her the money to get it fixed, but she also takes the time to tell Fern how “brave” she is in choosing to live outside of society.

Okay, but what about the people for whom it’s not a choice? What about the working poor – who tells their story? This was, after all, the point of Bruder’s book. I remember in particular the tale of a former executive, then in his late sixties, who having lost his savings in the 2008 crash and his house in a divorce, was forced to work 14-hour shifts in an Amazon warehouse just to keep himself and his beloved dog alive. But there’s barely so much as a reference to such exigencies here, just a bunch of old white folks (and one black one) sitting around campfires talking about the open road, and the smart decision they made one day to set off on it.

It’s a shame, because the first 75 minutes of this is easily the strongest filmmaking of Zhao’s career to date. I thought her previous feature, The Rider, was good, not great, but there’s an easy assurance to her shot-making here, and a steady, cumulative power to the cutting. (She’s her own editor.) Though born in Beijing and educated in London, she has an uncommon affinity for the landscapes of the American West. Wordless sequences of McDormand walking down deserted main streets at night, or bathing naked in a cold stream, convey both the harsh grandeur of her surroundings and the unbridgeable solitude of the life she’s chosen. At these moments, Nomadland feels less like a movie and more like a poem, an unflinching study of something elemental and perhaps unknowable. A portrait of a reflexive outsider.

But this fascination boils away, and the final 15 minutes in particular are a bust, a string of film-school clichés set to the kind of blandly tasteful piano-driven score that indie filmmakers love and indie musicians churn out by the yard. That Zhao even gives her composer a special showcase credit at the end (“Featuring the Music of Ludovico Einaudi”) suggests she’s inordinately proud of his contribution; I would respectfully suggest that a little of this stuff goes a long way. And there’s a lot more than a little here.

Still, the film is exactly the kind of thing that wins awards, and Nomadland already has: it walked away with the Golden Lion at last September’s Venice Film Festival, the People’s Choice Award at Toronto a few days later, and a slew of end-of-year critics’ association awards. An Oscar appears imminent. Whatever its flaws, and despite its frustrating lack of focus, it seems to be precisely the right movie for this particular moment.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Cover of The Monthly, March 2021
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