This New Age of Realism (Nouvelle Verite?) Hollywood is getting into lately – where documentary-style techniques and non-actors are woven into traditional story arcs played by trained actors – is as tricky as it sounds. The goal is to remove the artifice as much as possible, but if your lead is too polished, the light reflected on everything else ruins the effect.
When movie people say about an actress “the camera loves her”, they’re typically referring to that light. It’s both technical – the way movie light plays on the planes of her face – and the intangible light from within. For a female movie star, especially one as lauded as Frances McDormand, the ability to switch that off is crucial for this mash-up to work.
The opening titles of Nomadland tell us of a real mining town in Nevada, ironically called Empire, that literally disappeared off the map (its Zip Code was cancelled) after the U.S. Gypsum mine there closed in 2011. McDormand’s fictional character, Fern, is from this real dead town, forced out alone onto the harsh plains of the American West after the loss of her husband, company-owned house and steady income. She becomes a nomad, living in her van, driving great distances for itinerant work and refusing every anchor offered her. She has no goal or lofty dreams, no destination other than the next gig that will keep her in gas and food. She’s resigned to be a ghost chained to the earthly plane by manual labor.
To make this film, director Chloe Zhao brought McDormand into the world of real houseless nomads of the American West, whom the director had met and interviewed prior. All the characters Fern meets on the road – except for one which I’ll get to – are non-actors playing versions of themselves. We anticipate a documentary-ish mood piece, where the actress herself, as much as her character, drifts among these people, listening to their stories along with us. ‘Making’ herself one of them works because of McDormand’s unmatched flexibility as an actor, and would be just enough of a layer for this experiment to become transcendent. We get these transcendent moments, but we do also get a scripted storyline that requires scenes in which McDormand has to act, has to show her movie star light, rather than just be.
I’m not saying it spoils anything. Watching McDormand act is a distinct pleasure. But it takes us out of the realism in those moments. Like I said, it’s a tricky mix.
Zhao focuses the narrative on three nomads, all playing themselves. We first meet Linda May, who befriends Fern and introduces her to the larger nomad community. Another woman, Swankie, became a nomad when she learned she was dying of cancer, and mesmerizes Fern with anecdotes about her experiences with nature. A man named Bob Wells leads a regular gathering in Arizona called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where nomads support each other by passing along work opportunities, trading essential tools and knowledge, and providing camaraderie that, no matter how desirous of isolation, every soul needs.
Then we meet a fictional nomad played by David Strathairn. He’s here for the more scripted storyline, to try to pull Fern toward that which she resists, which is settling down. The problem isn’t so much that he’s a recognizable actor thrown into a group of non-actors, it’s that we don’t need his character to understand Fern’s reasons for ghosting herself. What there is to be told she slowly relates to the characters we’re more drawn to, characters we never see in movies – real people living this kind of life. Nothing McDormand and Strathairn do together tears your heart out like an exchange between Fern and Bob Wells where they each open up about loss.
It’s these scenes, Fern amongst the real nomads, that make the movie unique and unforgettable. The tales related feel as natural and eternal as the stunning landscapes they’re set against, even though some must have been practiced. Zhao likely heard stories in her initial interviews she felt were particularly beautiful or poetic, and asked the person to retell it when they shot the film. This actually makes the words resonate more, to have a careful director lightly fan them up into the starry South Dakota sky along with the embers from a campfire.
Many of the nomads point to the 2008 recession as what drove them into this lifestyle, but the way Zhao frames their world makes it more mythical. Using a dried-up mining town in the Old West to introduce the story, and then the endless horizons of the plains and deserts and badlands as a backdrop, she sets a nostalgic, ‘lost America’ tone that lingers over everything. It lends nobility to the characters that comes from our own nostalgia for unspoiled places and simpler times when people didn’t care so much about money and success. Zhao also goes to pains to avoid any sense that she’s exploiting the inherent oddness of these cultural outsiders, or turning them into victims.
This, in the end, is the biggest deal of this movie. It is not trying to roil indignation in us at what the cruelties of capitalism have done to these people, the way the world ignores them. It is not trying to make us feel guilty that our lives are more comfortable and safe. It does not let us laugh at them or pity them.
It simply and respectfully shows us the world they’ve created out of both necessity and desire, and what about that world brings them contentment. Maybe all this movie wants is for each of us to look at the world we’ve created for ourselves, remember what about it makes us content, and embrace that.
Nomadlandis currently streaming on Hulu.