If the University Press hadn’t already published my book on Nevada movies, I would enthusiastically include a section on one of the best projects ever filmed in the state, the newly released Nomadland. The title comes from a memoir, though the movie fictionalizes its main character Fern. When both her husband and the town of Empire, Nevada die, Fern hits the road and meets a series of nomads, many of whom choose not to live in conventional ways.
Like many people and stories that fit into a Nevada setting, Nomadland goes off the mainstream, resisting familiar systems. Director Chloé Zhao creates a hybrid format that mixes fiction and documentary. Zhao takes her camera to many of the locations covered in the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder. That means Nevada’s towns of Empire and Fernley plus a variety of other states like Arizona and Nebraska.
Rather than dress sets or work in studios, the director and her cinematographer deal with conditions as they find them. Instead of using blowers to remove the snow they unexpectedly discovered in Empire, they readjusted their mindset and dealt with reality. A cold and snowy Empire suits the moment’s mood. So do the rest of the locations, which the production team frequently filmed during the magic hour of light just before sunset.
Scenes often feature people not originally included in the script, real life nomads who offer insights about the atypical life they lead. The director shows impressive skills at preparing these nonprofessionals by listening to their stories and making them comfortable enough to talk openly and honestly in front of a camera.
But the director also works with professional actors like Frances McDormand, who optioned the book Nomadland and serves as a producer. In quiet, subtle ways, McDormand gets to the heart of an unusual woman who rejects the label homeless, noting that she simply doesn’t have a house. Fern and her real-life friends come across in a highly naturalistic manner that reveals a sense about shared humanity.
This warmth and genuine appreciation of people and the many routes they take make Nomadland one of the best movies in Nevada’s supply of road pictures. Incidentally, Nomadland plays Nevada differently than most road pictures like Rain Man, which feature travelers who pass through the state on their way to someplace else. Fern starts her travels in Nevada and expresses a love for Empire, that tiny gypsum mining town thousands pass by on their way to nearby Gerlach and the Burning Man Festival north of Reno. Plenty of projects film at Burning Man, but as someone who extensively researched Nevada’s cinematic history, I can proclaim with absolute certainty that Nomadland ranks as the best movie ever to film in Empire!
Nomadland opened on IMAX screens January 29th, with widespread streaming offered on February 17.