“I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” the sixtysomething widow Fern (Frances McDormand) assures a worried younger friend she runs into in the aisles of a big-box store. “Not the same thing, right?” At the end of Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s poetic and bracingly urgent third feature, the mystery of that question continues to resonate. The journey Fern makes over the course of the movie—the journey that is the movie—takes her from the home she has lived in her whole adult life to one she must invent on her own, day by day, as she pursues the existence of a van-dwelling migrant worker, drifting in and out of the lives of other self-declared “nomads” she encounters along the way. Nomadland is a meditation on the meaning and value of the concept of home: Does it reside in a building? A vehicle? A family? A sense of security and belonging? At different moments in the film, Fern will lose all these things and more, but the story of Nomadland (to the degree this minimally plotted, often dialogue-free film has a story) never asks us to feel pity for her, just as she feels none for herself. She doesn’t need a house; she has a home.
Like Zhao’s first two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, Nomadland is set in an eerily beautiful American landscape familiar from decades of Hollywood Westerns. Fern’s travels in search of seasonal employment (or sometimes just a place to park) take her from the Nevada mountains to the South Dakota badlands and through the Arizona desert. From the window of her van one day, she spots a running bison. Later, she floats, alone and naked, in a forest spring at the edge of a waterfall.
But layered onto these open expanses of nature—and often posing a threat to their continued existence—is another landscape, that of 21st century capitalism. One of the seasonal jobs Fern works is as a packer on the floor of a vast Amazon fulfillment center, where conveyor belts carry what look like infinite rows of yellow plastic bins. Later she spends time as a harvester on an industrial farm, where she loads truck after truck from a building-size mountain of beets. Zhao films these operations from a distance, as if to underline their inhuman scale. But there is no preaching or philosophizing, either from the filmmaker or the characters, about the exploitive nature of modern labor. In fact, Fern doesn’t seem to mind the low-paid, backbreaking jobs she takes on—not even cleaning bathrooms at an RV park. As she assures an agent at an employment office, in addition to needing the cash to keep her jury-rigged van running, she likes to work.
Fern is an easy character to love—independent, bighearted, resourceful to a fault—but a tough one to understand. Her fierce attachment to the bare-bones lifestyle she’s adopted, even when she’s offered what seem like desirable alternatives, reads at times as a kind of enlightenment and at others as a warning sign of mental illness. Fern’s need for constant movement, McDormand implies in a performance of extraordinary depth and ambiguity, is both a search for something and an escape from something else, and not even she seems completely sure what either something is.
Only gradually does the film let slip a few details about Fern’s old life. Her late and deeply loved husband, whom we see only once in a torn snapshot, worked at a gypsum mine in a Nevada company town that disappeared almost overnight when the mine shut down. Fern appears to be semi-estranged from her family, though her sister (Melissa Smith) lends her money to fix her van and offers to take her in as a permanent houseguest. She does form attachments with other drifters, including the love-besotted Dave (David Strathairn), but she always keeps them at arm’s length, ready to pack up her lovingly tricked-out Econoline and head for the hills when relationships get thorny. She is working-class and plainspoken to the point of occasional rudeness, but she’s also a woman of many surprises: At one point we see her alone in her van practicing the flute, and in a sublime scene late in the film, she recites a poem from memory to a younger traveler.
Nomadland was adapted loosely from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, a nonfiction work of reporting for which the author spent time undercover at some of the same seasonal jobs we see McDormand’s character working, including the Amazon packing floor. Fern is a composite character not based on any one of Bruder’s subjects, but some other figures mentioned in the book make in-person appearances. Fern first encounters a community of other permanent travelers at a real-life annual event called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where hundreds of vehicle-dwellers, most of them past what used to be called “retirement age,” converge in the desert to share food, trade tools and tips, and listen to the words of Bob Wells, a full-time itinerant whose YouTube channel has become a hub for this community. The real-life Wells appears as himself, just as two of Fern’s closest fellow travelers, Swankie and Linda May, are played by real-life nomads with the same names. These women’s stories, and their general air of having arrived at a place of hard-won peace with themselves and the world, provide some of Nomadland’s most unforgettable moments.
This blending of nonprofessional actors, especially older people living at the margins of society, with movie stars like McDormand and Strathairn could have been a recipe for sanctimony. But McDormand—who also co-produced, and who handpicked Zhao as her collaborator after optioning the book—embodies Fern with such unaffected honesty, and Zhao films both her professional and nonprofessional subjects with such care and compassion, that the distinction between the rubber-tramp crowd and the Hollywood A-listers is all but erased.
Zhao, who is still only 38, is a sort of cinematic prodigy, in control of her craft at every level. She wrote the script in consultation with the subjects’ own stories, often changing it day by day based on conversations that happened in the course of the shoot, and edited the film herself. (The editing, which weaves a series of often near-silent vignettes into an integrated and hugely affecting story, is one of the movie’s technical high points.) Cinematographer Joshua James Richards has worked on all three of Zhao’s features, and his unobtrusive but accomplished camerawork combines the immediacy of a vérité-style documentary with the stark big-sky beauty of a Western landscape painting. The score by the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi starts as a quiet piano theme and grows by the end into richly orchestrated soundscape, as if to reflect Fern’s shifting internal state. In many scenes, the itinerant characters listen or dance together to music: a guitar strummed by a campfire, a Christmas carol on the car radio, a country band at a honky-tonk bar. The world the nomads inhabit is often lonely and hardscrabble, but it’s never without some capacity for community, celebration, and joy.
At one point in her solitary wanderings, Fern finds herself passing by a single-screen movie theater in an unnamed Western town. The title on the marquee: The Avengers. In a movie that’s generally too interested in the rest of the world to comment on itself, it’s a rare in-joke, an apparent reference to the fact that the director’s next big job will be to take on a megawatt, multistar Marvel movie: 2021’s Eternals. What Zhao’s curious and contemplative camera will find when trained on Angelina Jolie in front of a green screen is still a mystery, but with Nomadland she has confirmed the extent of her own superpowers.