It’s easy — and often a disservice — to rely on comparisons to other filmmakers in the course of film criticism, but as I watched Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Terrence Malick. Both here and in The Rider (2017), Zhao’s work reminds me of Malick’s in the ways it takes life as we know it — or lives we may know close to nothing about — and turns the world into something ethereal and spiritual while still remaining grounded and near universal. But at the same time, Zhao conjures a similar feeling of singularity — despite their shared traits, there is only one Terrence Malick and it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is only one Chloé Zhao.
Adapted by Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same name, Nomadland follows Fern (played with overwhelming empathy by Frances McDormand), a woman who finds a certain kind of freedom on the road after she loses her husband and her livelihood. Working seasonal gig jobs at Amazon and the National Parks, Fern lives a mostly solitary life in a retrofitted van, driving across the American West while she crosses paths with the other travelers who have chosen to lead a similar life. “Chosen” is a key term here, and a complicated one, as Zhao makes it clear that for many — perhaps even most — of the nomads we meet in the film, this is a life born of circumstance; these aren’t rich folks having a lark, these are people from whom the economic realities of America have exacted a great toll, such that living on the road is preferable, at least from a financial standpoint. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have agency, or that the decision is not their own — Zhao highlights the notion that nomad life can be a way to take power back into one’s own hands, to live on one’s own terms with no one to answer to.
It’s this deep sense of understanding and empathy that makes Zhao one of a kind. Using a cast filled with real-life nomads (outside of McDormand and an excellent David Strathairn), she portrays an underacknowledged culture in a way that is uplifting rather than patronizing, highlighting the ability of the human spirit to persevere even in the face of personal tragedy, to find the beauty in the world and in each other. Zhao utilizes a smartly roving camera, a wonderfully moving score by Ludovico Einaudi, and the natural landscapes of some of the most gorgeous parts of the country to transport us to a world that may be new to many of us, but only because we haven’t taken the time to truly look for it. If there’s a pantheon of directors who truly understand America and how to encapsulate it on screen — both positively and negatively — Zhao is steadily building a case for enshrinement therein, with Nomadland as yet another undeniable piece of evidence.