Frances McDormand gets top billing in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, but it’s easy to argue that the film’s real star is America. Shot over four months across seven Western states, the movie tells the story of Fern, a widow forced to leave her home in Empire, Nevada, after a gypsum mine closes, effectively erasing the town.
Living in her van (“I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless”), Fern traverses the West, taking on seasonal jobs— at an Amazon fulfillment center during the holiday rush, at a sugar beet farm during 54 harvest—and meeting other nomads along the way.
The long, languid shots of the countryside capture two feelings at once: the loneliness Fern feels being on the road on her own, and also her enviable freedom, as she explores a vast and arresting landscape. The moment pictured here is from South Dakota’s Badlands, which cinematographer Joshua James Richards says was a highlight of the shoot. “The Badlands doesn’t have the grandeur of other places in America, like the Grand Canyon, but it has an eeriness to it,” says Richards, who was obsessed with the American West while growing up in southwest England. “It feels like another planet completely alien. It just stretches on, like an ocean, and you can’t see the end of it.”
Apart from McDormand and actor David Strathairn, the cast is composed of actual nomads and locals, whose stories Zhao worked into the script.
“It’s hard to sum up exactly what I learned from [the nomads], but definitely just the beauty of being an independent spirit,” Richards says. “They’ve taken an authority over their lives, and they’ve decided what they want the story of their lives to be.”
They’re also appreciative of the country’s natural charms—something Richards says more people need to embrace. “I went for a hike in the mountains the other day, and there were two gentlemen walking the other way, and they had their phone set to CNN, and it was talking about the election,” he recalls. “And we’re in the mountains! It was like someone just walked into a cathedral talking loudly, being disrespectful. Can’t we just turn that off and look around? I think that would do us a lot of good. I hope this film helps people remember how beautiful America is.”