The last ten years or so have been depressingly enlightening about the state of capitalism in America — among the many other deeply broken things about the country. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020) provides a further illustration of our troubles, bleak but stirring evidence of the soul-crushing effects of our way of life. Nomadland tells the eye-opening story of Fern (Frances McDormand, in an award-caliber performance), a widow whose hometown of Empire, Nevada practically dried up and blew away after the death of its one industry. Fern has lost everything — except her van, which she transforms into a home. Initially, Fern gets by doing seasonal work at an Amazon warehouse, but the dearth of other opportunities in her area compels her to follow a friend to Arizona, where she learns how to get by from a community of itinerant workers similarly left behind by America’s unforgiving systems.
Nomadland is a remarkable film combining world-class acting, moving story-telling, and a compelling, experiential documentary style. McDormand brings quirky likability, pride, and stubbornness to her role, which gives the viewer a sympathetic window onto the world Zhao explores. This world feels very real, and that’s because it quite clearly is; key characters portray themselves, and many scenes have the reality feel of documentary footage, mixing true interactions with improvisations and scripted content. The film’s examination of squandered American promise is quite melancholic, and there’s a quiet suggestion of disdain for the tyranny of exploitative late-stage capitalism, but by and large it remains non-judgmental, allowing its critique to blend with open-mindedness about the nomadic lives it’s commemorating. It doesn’t glorify the life, but it keeps its eyes open to the beauties of it — which is a good thing, because for all its even-handedness, the film definitely captures dark truths. A powerful film likely to stand as a time capsule of the brokenness of this moment of American history.