The American economy has had its ups and downs—in the 1970s manufacturing crashed so badly that several large cities were pretty much wiped out. But when the financial crash hit in 2008 the economy was less obviously predicated on a few huge industrial employers, and the ensuing collapse was more widely distributed. For the first time since the 1930s large numbers of people found their geographic situation untenable, and lacking the funds to set up house somewhere new, took to the road. Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, Nomadland, documented this low-visibility phenomenon, of predominantly older, low-income Americans drifting across the country, following seasonal employment opportunities, and living in their vehicles. The Chinese director Chloé Zhao adapted the book into a drama film, which was released in 2020 and won a raft of prizes. Oscars tend to be given out based on the perceived worthiness of a project rather than on any discernible measure of its quality, as can be seen by comparing recent Best Picture recipients Parasite (deals with poverty, cinematically brilliant) and Hidden Figures (tells an important story about African American women mathematicians, cinematically pedestrian). Comparing the latter film to Zhao’s Nomadland is instructive, because both are adaptations of non-fiction books, telling largely unknown but hugely significant stories. While director Theodore Melfi was entirely focussed on presenting the story of Hidden Figures in an almost propagandistic way, insisting on its importance rhetorically, and continually steering the audience towards his desired responses, Zhao was simply trying to make a good drama, to tell the particular story of her characters, and to represent their experience. The rest, including any lessons that might be there to be learned, is left up to the audience. Nomadland also won Best Picture, but that’s just because the Academicians thought it was a worthy topic, and that it would make them look good if they supported it. Most films like this make no impression at all on the mainstream or the box office, and while it’s certainly gratifying to see this one receiving all the plaudits, that’s not why you should watch it. You should watch it because it’s a consummate example of the film-maker’s craft.
Films are collaborative artworks of course, and Zhao had some very capable help with this one. She takes the screenplay credit herself, but I find myself wondering how much of the script was written down in advance, and how much emerged from her directing of a group of actors which includes some of the most gifted professionals in the business, along with a number of non-professionals playing very thinly fictionalised versions of themselves. Frances McDormand stars and also tops the list of producers. The latter role was clearly significant, and having a figure like her attached to the production must have made it easier to find investors (although at around five million dollars we are hardly talking about a big budget number here). This is only the third feature on which Joshua James Richards has served as director of cinematography, and I hadn’t heard his name before, but after his remarkable contribution to this film (and the large number of awards and nominations he received for it) I’m sure I’ll be hearing it again. This is very much a film of America’s dry, wide heart, and it is shot with a beautiful sense of tranquility reminiscent of Robby Müller’s work on Paris Texas—all of that human effort and activity just vanishing to a point in the midst of the vastness. The soundtrack is by Ludovico Einaudi, but it’s not an original score: Zhao selected a number of existing recordings, mostly drawn from his Seven Days Walking series; the music fits so perfectly that I couldn’t tell you a thing about it, but then Einaudi is one of the most low-key composers around, and this is presumably why he was chosen. Seven Days Walking is music about landscape, and while it’s inspired by mountains rather than the wide vistas of the Southwest, it becomes of a piece with the cinematography here. The film’s languid pacing is also directly related to the landscape: the way that it fills the screen, and the way that the edited narrative leans on it for dramatic context.
Nomadland’s narrative is a quiet one. McDormand’s central, unifying performance is an essay in the subtle mannerisms of a person almost without ego, someone whose strength is manifest in their independence, not in the tenor of their relations with others. In fact, this is a film almost without interpersonal conflict, and what conflict is present is not a primary driver of the narrative. It is a commonplace among professional writers, particularly for the screen, that drama is conflict, or that narrative can only be driven by open conflict; but a movie like this can make the histrionics of even ostensibly serious social dramas seem ridiculous. How often are conflicts articulated precisely and emoted between their participants in anyone’s real life experience? Points of friction are more likely to be manifest in glances, in a movement of the shoulders, and in the long-term trajectory of an association. The film is not a polemic, although to some extent it contains polemics, spoken by Bob Wells. Wells is a well-known figure in the US van-dwelling community, the organiser of a major gathering, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), and the author of a popular series of YouTube videos. He appears here playing himself, both public-speaking at the RTR and in conversation with McDormand’s character, and the script puts the explicit articulation of a van-dweller’s perspective into his mouth. Other characters are played by van-dwellers, their performances as comfortably naturalistic as anything that might be expected from a professional. McDormand and David Strathairn are the professionals with the largest parts, and its a tribute to everyone involved that it’s not at all easy to tell the pros from the rest. I could go on at length, but the film’s greatest achievement is its atmosphere, and there is no way to convey that. Nomadland is an attempt to convey something equally elusive, which is the experience of living a life, the simple daily texture afforded by the meagre material scaffold of a van-dweller’s existence. Atmosphere stands in for experience in the narrative, asking the viewer to simply settle in for the season, rather than constantly demanding the next incident or event. I can’t think of any other way Zhao and her cohorts could have conveyed Nomadland’s central insight, which is that this lifestyle, necessitated by poverty, is one that most of its adherents would not willingly swap for a return to settled living. It is a great injustice that poverty has driven these people to the road, but between that observation and the observation that many of them have found true fulfilment there, there is no conflict.