Empty streets, shuttered houses, a discontinued zip code, and nothing but desert all around: this is Empire, Nevada in 2011. Formerly a mining town for the United States Gypsum Corporation, it was abandoned following the 2008 recession and became, officially, a Census Designated Place – a ghost town. And Fern, the aging protagonist of Chloe Zhao’s 2020 Nomadland, is the ghost that haunts it. 

A Lost Empire

At least, this is where the story finds her: living out of her van, unable to stay in Empire but unable to leave the memories of her dead husband that it contains. Yet as winter sets in she is forced to head South. What follows is an odyssey through modern-day middle America, a road movie, an examination of the American Dream, and an existential contemplation of life in the twilight years. 

Both Fact and Fiction

Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In the 21st Century, Zhao’s film occupies an unusual space between fiction and reality. Frances McDormand’s Fern is a fabrication, but the characters that surround her are not. They arrive straight from the real vandwelling community of the source book: from the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous founder Bob Wells, to the lifelong kayaker Swankie, to the freight train-hopping Derek Endres. Zhao, aided by the close, wide-angle lenses and deep focus of her cinematographer Joshua James Richards, excels in pulling both reality and great performance out of non-actors, a skill previously demonstrated in her 2017 The Rider

“I think we need both facts and fiction,” she says in an interview with CNN. “Since the dawn of civilization we’ve had poetry, fiction, allegories and myths to help us make sense (of the world) in a safe space […] Sometimes, I find the best way to convey truth is through poetry.” 

Fern, then, acts as what McDormand has described as a “docent”. She learns, on behalf of the audience, about the exploitation of the gig economy and migratory workers, about the lasting effects of the Great Recession and the shortcomings of the American capitalist system, about the people that Bob Wells describes as “horses put out to pasture by the tyranny of the dollar”: ghosts in their own right. 

Truth Through Poetry

But Nomadland is not a documentary, and Fern’s journey passes seamlessly through these cold realities into moments of the poetry Zhao speaks of. Sunset over the plains, a swim in an ice-cold creek, the primeval grandeur of the redwood forests: here Fern finds peace and meaning, accompanied by the pondering notes of Ludovico Einaudi’s piano score. Then she wanders again. 

In the year 2021 Nomadland won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Chloe Zhao the Oscar for Best Director. It is a film about uncertainty: uncertainty as a prolonged state of being rather than the moment before a decision. And it is about finding or creating life in this uncertainty, rather than haunting a past that no longer exists.