“If you want to get more out of life,” advised Christopher McCandless, “you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.” That didn’t work out so well for McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book-length look at the vagabond spirit, “Into the Wild”: He died alone in Alaska at the age of 24. But there are many who thrive by that same philosophy, which imbues every frame of director Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” a romantic portrayal of life on the road that reaches toward the kind of enlightenment McCandless describes, without shying away from the potholes one inevitably hits in its pursuit.
Like Zhao’s previous film, micro-masterpiece “The Rider,” this rich and resonant celebration of the American West straddles the border between fact and fiction, enlisting real people to play poetically embellished versions of themselves in order to reach a deeper truth. It stars Frances McDormand as an invented character, Fern, a 60-something Nevada widow who lost her house when the gypsum mine that had propped up the town of Empire closed for good, scattering the residents to the four winds. She now travels (and lives) in her run-down white van. Fern may be a composite, but Zhao surrounds her with genuine itinerants — a mix of the upbeat eccentrics profiled in Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” and drifters whom Zhao discovered in making the film.
The idea was not so much to adapt Bruder’s book as to embrace what she had chronicled: a segment of self-anointed wanderers, many of them past retirement age but still obliged to pick up odd jobs where they can. These free-range loners reject the ideal of family, homeownership and fixed roots that now passes for the American dream. In exchange, they taste independence as few sedentary folks do. The country was built by people who thought just like this, who broke from the comfort of the familiar to take their chance on the frontier — some by choice, others by necessity.
In her nonjudgmental way, Zhao invites audiences to decide for themselves what they make of Fern’s lifestyle, which comes with certain dangers: She could freeze to death in her van, food and first aid are sometimes hard to find, and certain aspects of her behavior might suggest mental health issues. Some people need structure, while others abhor complacency. In both cases, we see inertia at play: It can be as hard to escape the hamster wheel of working to pay one’s mortgage as it is to pull off the highway and settle down.
Fern hasn’t necessarily decided. She’s still testing the waters of a nomadic existence, so we learn as she does, collecting suggestions from those more experienced. McDormand can be an immensely likable actor, but she plays ornery better than practically anyone (see “Olive Kitteridge” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), and those seemingly contradictory notes — the affectionate old cat who’ll swat if rubbed the wrong way — constitute the heart of her performance, a tricky chord she plays to perfection. What is Fern looking for out there? Does she hope to find something, or is she running away? Will her route lead her home, or is the sky the limit? The answer is, yes, all of the above.
“Nomadland” offers us a chance to share in the freedom (round-the-campfire camaraderie, an ever-changing panorama) and frustrations (a flat tire, a busted engine) that come with the territory. And what territory! From the frosty South Dakota town where Fern picks up part-time work at an Amazon fulfillment center to the warmth of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a desert haven in Quartzite, Ariz., where she meets itinerant evangelist Bob Wells, the movie retraces the unspeakably scenic path Bruder outlined while remaining open to fresh discoveries. The same goes for the warmhearted humans the production enlisted. Santa-bearded burning man Wells (who plays himself) and mellow fellow travelers Swankie and Linda May were described in the book, while others, like soulful stray Derek (Derek Endres, who resembles a young Sean Penn), were adopted along the way.
Among the nomads, one stands out: a man named Dave (David Strathairn) who has a white van of his own and a gentle, welcoming personality. While not overtly flirtatious, he seems open to Fern in a way that complicates their solitary existence. Within this community, people seem to make friends easily, and though a certain amount of fraternization is only human, the movie is mysterious about those dynamics. As the two professional actors in this equation, the two experience an almost magnetic pull toward one another, and yet more than once, Dave or Fern drives off without saying a proper goodbye. As in any social setting, connections are easiest when two people are moving in the same direction at similar speeds, but in this case, Fern is embarking on her roving life, while Dave seems to be eyeing the off-ramp.
If this were a love story, it somehow wouldn’t be true to what Zhao has set out to capture, which is the essence of what compels people to abandon a traditional abode and live on the road — squatting in parking lots, crapping in buckets. “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing,” Fern tells a teen she once tutored when the young woman recognizes her in a sporting goods store. Being a nomad seems exhausting at times, and McDormand doesn’t make it look glamorous. If anything, she embraces a weathered naturalism uncommon among stars, what with her short, uneven haircut and take-me-as-I-am complexion. This is still a performance, but Zhao’s semi-improvisational method strips away the technique and allows McDormand to be herself in character, reacting to moments in unrehearsed ways. That also helps with the nonprofessionals, whose delivery may sound slightly stilted when in fact, what we’re hearing is the absence of acting.
“Nomadland” doesn’t simply repeat what the director did on “The Rider” — a story she discovered and subsequently reconstructed on a Native American reservation. But it benefits from Zhao’s instinctive curiosity and identification with outsiders, reminiscent of French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who turned her empathetic camera on vagabonds and gleaners in her innovative docu-fiction features (the French title of “Vagabond,” which translates to “With no roof or rules,” could be a nomad mantra).
Here, for instance, Zhao accentuates the characters’ ever-changing employment situation, offering humanizing glimpses into unusual jobs, whether it’s hosting campers at Badlands National Park or working behind the counter of the Wall Drug tourist stop near Dubuque, with its iconic 80-foot dinosaur. The nomads go where the gigs are, dictating migratory patterns not unlike those of part-time agricultural workers who follow the cycle of crops.
Zhao is clearly influenced by Terrence Malick as well, and though she may have subconsciously stolen those weightless shots of McDormand feeding chickens or caressing the trunk of a giant redwood, the rhythm of her editing is distinctly hers. Zhao finds her own flow, such that watching “Nomadland” feels like gazing out on one long, gorgeous sunset. If that’s not your thing, so be it, but for those on Zhao’s wavelength, the movie is a marvel of empathy and introspection. In Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, she has chosen the ideal musical accomplice, relying on his rolling piano pieces to open our minds to whatever introspective peregrinations we might find alongside Fern’s.
If road movies have an intrinsic weakness, it’s the episodic nature of their narratives, but “Nomadland” solves that beautifully, creating a pattern in which the path is more circular than linear, and impactful characters come back around to more deeply enrich Fern’s journey. The result goes deeper than “Into the Wild” — or Reese Witherspoon’s off-the-beaten-path movie “Wild,” for that matter — although McCandless surely would have approved. Here’s that rare movie that embodies his belief that “there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”