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Chloé Zhao has an unusual methodology of blending fiction and fact in her films. In Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider, and now Nomadland, nonprofessionals become actors as part of stories that are heavily informed by their real lives. Zhao’s first two films both utilized residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, while her latest expands, with a larger budget, a sprawling journey across the US West, and a focus on firmly established character actor Frances McDormand. Zhao’s style here bears new fruit, some of it fascinating and some of it troubling.
The film is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, which looked at the new and disconcertingly growing population of middle-aged and older people who have adopted transient vehicle-based lifestyles to get by in the wake of the Great Recession. Living out of their trailers, vans, and RVs, they move from one low-paying temporary gig to another around the country. Large companies have noticed and are eagerly taking advantage, most notably Amazon with its insidious CamperForce initiative. Set over the course of a year from 2012 to 2013, Nomadland follows Fern (McDormand), a woman in her 60s who joins this roving workforce after losing both her husband and all of her savings. Along the way she finds a series of temporary friends — Linda, Charlene, and Bob — who are more experienced in this transient world and act as “mentors” of sorts. All are played by real-life nomad workers — Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells — and the life stories they relate to Fern draw a great deal from their actual biographies.
The film builds its authenticity in other ways as well. The cast and crew lived out of vans for the duration of the shoot, and Fern’s work as part of CamperForce was filmed in a real, functioning Amazon warehouse. The combination of skillful, nonintrusive camerawork and the naturalistic acting produces an acute sense of realism unlike almost anything else a mainstream movie has been able to create in years. What’s most interesting, though, is how Zhao juxtaposes this sensibility with deliberate invocations of the Western film tradition. The characters are often filmed against stunning, expansive natural vistas. The iconography of the lone Western hero and its attendant US myths around rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are given a more somber, implicitly questioning framing here. When someone optimistically compares modern nomads to the pioneers of old, there are several layers of irony at play.
But there are thornier aspects to the movie’s approach. There’s a long, tired tradition of well-off actors receiving copious praise and awards attention for “slumming it” as lower-class characters. It would be crass and uncharitable to dismiss the cast and crew’s efforts out of hand, and McDormand is undeniably great, embodying Fern’s weary grit effortlessly. But it still should be questioned whether temporary excursions into this world from outsiders do in fact constitute “authenticity.” This is the kind of film that gets widely lauded for its “empathy,” but how far does empathy actually get us with these kind of social problems?
Intensifying this is the fact that Nomadland heavily prioritizes “empathy” over material considerations of the nomads’ circumstances. The anecdotes both real and fictional which populate the narrative incorporate economic factors only incidentally. I’ve not read Nomadland the book, but it is apparently heavily critical of Amazon’s CamperForce and similar models which prey on workers like this. The film treats Fern’s warehouse work with measured neutrality; in fact, most of her gigs are illustrated via their mundanity rather than through any lens of exploitation. (That the film makes this choice in adaptation while filming on Amazon property raises uncomfortable questions around that collaboration.) The overall picture is of a problem that lacks any but the most vague cause. Creating empathy is not necessarily a simple task in cinema, but it is definitely easier than challenging an audience over the structures of their society.
Nomadland opens in virtual cinemas December 4.