Frances McDormand reflects on the beauty of South Dakota's badlands in "Nomadland."

Her name is Chloé Zhao, and she makes Westerns. It may seem odd that this 38-year-old native of Beijing found herself at home in the Great American West, but then, we so often see people find their place far from where they grew up. Two years ago, Zhao caught the eye of people on our shores with her first American film, The Rider, which starred a real-life rodeo rider in South Dakota. Her follow-up movie, Nomadland, is more impressive yet. It comes to our multiplexes this week, though I think a better place to see it would be at a drive-in where the open spaces around your car echo the open spaces in the film.

The film is set in 2012, in the wake of the previous recession. Frances McDormand plays Fern, who has recently lost not only her husband but also her Nevada hometown, after the mining company that employed everyone there shut down operations. Now she has taken to living out of a van, traveling all over the West, and doing seasonal jobs because she’s not yet old enough to live on retirement.

McDormand blends in seamlessly with a cast filled mostly with real-life nomads who roam the freeways thus from California to Nebraska. One indelible moment comes when a 75-year-old nomad named Swankie tells Fern about her terminal brain cancer and how her sight of swallows over a river during a long-ago kayaking trip to Colorado let her know that she had lived a good life. There’s such an easy rapport between her and McDormand that a whole movie could have been made from just them hashing out the particulars of life without a house.

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Zhao is all about the particulars, as Fern is relatively new to this way of life and occasionally needs advice, with Swankie admonishing her about traveling without a spare tire. The director and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards have an eye for the beauties of the terrain, whether they’re in the badlands of South Dakota or the desert of Arizona. However, they don’t overlook the grimy details of the various workplaces where Fern toils: a national park, a sugar beet farm, a diner, an Amazon plant. The nomads know one another, and life is a constant series of farewells and reunions as they journey down their own paths.

Some of those nomads are PTSD cases who can’t live in big cities, while others use the road as a refuge from addictions and the like. Perhaps Zhao could have been sharper about the forces that turn people like Fern into nomads. She gives us a bit of that when Fern is forced to stay with her sister (Melissa Smith) and starts in on her brother-in-law (Warren Keith) who’s buying up real estate in a predatory way. Nomadland could have used more to keep the film from being a misty-eyed tribute to the romance of the open road, but then, I don’t know that asking filmmakers to be socioeconomic professors is the best thing. What I do know is that Zhao, like Kelly Reichardt (whose Wendy and Lucy is spiritual kin to this film), has a knack for gazing on the deeds of marginalized people with the greatest delicacy and empathy, without turning preachy or polemical. Fern has a chance to settle down in a house with a man (David Strathairn, one of the few professional actors here) who cares about her, but she chooses to go back out on the freeway and tell a departed nomad, “See you down the road.” It’s hard not to climb on board with that.

Note: This article has been edited to correct some errors that were in the original copy. Click here for an explanation.

Starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Rated R.


  1. Some corrections: This is Zhao’s third film. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” preceded “The Rider.” Swankie talks about/shot video of swallows, not pelicans, and though the movie version of Swankie dies, the real life Swankie (who doesn’t have brain cancer) is still alive, still kayaking, still wandering the West, and chuckling at your error.

  2. You might want to check your facts. Swankie is very much alive and well and still living the grand life in the southwest. Your article has given van groups on Facebook a hearty laugh over ‘fake news’.

  3. I guarantee you that Swankie is alive and there was no “dedication” not to mention “Colorado pelicans”. Did the writer actually see the movie or just use snippets of other reviews to create this review?

  4. Great review but you were mistaken in one respect: Swankie’s death was fictional. She is still very much alive and a good friend of mine. I was also in the movie in a non-speaking role.

  5. Swankie is alive and well…and amused, albeit a little creeped out, that Fort Worth Weekly has inaccurately reported her death. Perhaps a correction note is in order? By way of background, I’m the journalist who wrote the non-fiction book this film is based on. Feel free to reach out.

  6. A better review: Lots of hype about ‘Nomadland’, but I suggest you pass this one by. Beautiful scenery from the West, some poignant moments, but this film gets lost in the expanse, and wanders aimlessly. Director Chloé Zhao doesn’t seem to know what she wants to say, even if she has a knack for pointing the camera in the right direction. In a sense, the picture is a maudlin, treacly tale of white privilege focused on a character who, by the end, simply seems self-absorbed and immature in spite of her years. Thumbs down.