Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland

A Beautiful Walking Sim of a Film — “Nomadland”

“Nomadland” won’t be for everybody. For the people who enjoy films that act like witnesses, it can be beautiful. What do I mean by that?

“Nomadland” follows Fern, a woman in her 60s. Her husband has died. She’s lost her home and job in the Great Recession. She lives in her van, driving from place to place and job to job. She’s played by Frances McDormand in a cast that blends actors with real people who live this modern nomadic life.

It reflects on the collapse of empire we’re all living through, but only in a way that helps characters speak to other characters. Fern struggles, but her journey is never treated as a tragic or representative story. Instead, it’s simply her story, emotionally full, bittersweet at times, and eventful in the way anyone’s can be.

Let’s get back to the question. How does a movie act like a witness, or an observer? There are films that simply seem to watch what happens. What’s cinematic feels removed from them. That’s hard to accomplish when a film still includes everything that makes a movie: edits, dialogue shots, landscape, sets, music, acting, you name it. That’s all still there, but it fades as you watch until you’re just a witness along with it.

Go with me on a tangent here; it’ll wrap back around. Warren Spector is a video game designer. He once spoke about his dream game: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly”.

The idea is to replicate one city block in all its details, foibles, in all its random objects that may mean nothing or that may collect into describing a person. People would go about their lives with no particular heed to the player as special or unique or as anything else but another person going about their life.

Critic Jim Rossignol once compared this to a game called “Gone Home”. It simulates as deeply as possible returning to a family home. Games like this are associated with a genre called walking simulators. They can become controversial because they pursue a meticulous realization of a place instead of prioritizing gameplay. Being able to inhabit that place as a player is what’s important, even if everything that usually makes a game feels removed. Many argue that this makes the genre cease to be games, and start to be a different kind of interactive art.

The agency that we enjoy in most video games is instead centered around a place feeling, looking, and acting real. For the audience, you can invest in the feeling that it is real. What traditionally makes a game a game – running, jumping, dodging, shooting, solving puzzles – in these games those elements fade away. You’re just a witness there. You’re just moving through the house, seeing what’s there, rifling through closets and dressers and drawing conclusions that ultimately only matter to you. In many of these games, like “Firewatch”, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”, or “Dear Esther”, there is a clear end-state for the player’s journey. In the most experimental forms of walking sim, such as those made by Connor Sherlock and Kitty Horrorshow, there’s often no win-state or conclusion. You just keep witnessing until you decide to stop playing.

This is what “Nomadland” is, and why it’s beautiful. What makes a film a film is deeply secondary to watching someone live. Whereas games are built around the agency of its audience, films are most often built around performance. So instead of gameplay being replaced by a location to explore, what’s cinematic is replaced by a life to learn.

In “Nomadland” there is no end-state or conclusion. There’s no wrap-up. Of course the film ends at some point, but what plot happens is secondary to feeling like you’re experiencing who Fern is. That doesn’t really conclude. As an audience, we move through, seeing what’s there, inhabiting these moments and places. We make inferences about these lives, and it all ultimately only matters to you.

It may seem strange to compare a film to a walking sim, but the internal space they both evoke is similar. There are things that move you, but again and again I found myself returning to thoughts about my own life and decisions. I’m three decades younger than Frances McDormand, but even in my 30s I have photos I enjoy remembering, a toy from my childhood I miss, loved ones who have passed, keepsakes, memories. I may be younger, but we all have our starter’s kits for nostalgia. “Nomadland” provides a uniquely safe space to think about those things, to evoke their memory in myself. And as sad as parts of the film may be, they never feel heartbreaking or aching. The sadness is simply there, alongside everything else.

Movies are very different from video games, but “Nomadland” accomplishes in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a character what walking sims often accomplish in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a space. Of course, both have to be directed near perfectly to obscure that sense of direction, but “Nomadland” is more similar to that experience than it is to most other films.

Obviously, cinema has a longer history as a medium – it’s more accepting of films like this. Yet the closest comparisons I might draw to it are still more consciously cinematic:

I think of the films of Byambasuren Davaa, Terrence Malick, Bela Tarr. These are movies that often rely on long takes. You inhabit their spaces through unbroken contact. It’s easier to feel like you inhabit a place alongside characters when edits are few and far between. It’s one way of removing something cinematic from the equation so that you feel more like a witness than a viewer.

For the most part, “Nomadland” edits quickly. This put me off at first. It’s much more difficult to feel close to characters, alongside them in that place, if we’re constantly changing shot and even locations. There’s something here that’s lyrical, though – sometimes visually, but that’s not what I mean. What’s remarkable about “Nomadland” is that it gets to a similar place without removing any of the obvious hallmarks of movie-ness.

In Davaa, Malick, and Tarr’s films, I can feel like I’m seated among the characters. I’m witnessing what’s happening as an unspoken character, as the proverbial fly on the wall. The magic of those films is that I become the camera, a kind of ghost observer who exists in the scene. It feels like I am in those rooms and landscapes, watching what’s happening.

In “Nomadland”, it feels like there is no camera. It’s much more akin to the feeling of watching a documentary, but without narration, questions, themed structure, or any of what typically forms a documentary. You don’t feel like you’re a fly on the wall in a place, you feel like a fly on the wall in a life. It doesn’t feel like you’ve become the camera here, it feels like you’ve become a memory seeing all the other memories alongside you. It feels like you’re one of the people Fern passingly meets, who shares some moment that they’ll both look back on as happy, or fraught, or interesting, but a moment you’ll remember.

It might not even be a special moment, but it becomes special because you remember it, because one day you’ll look back on it as a hallmark of that time, as an anchor point to feel what you did then, as a space with someone else that felt sheltered when so much else didn’t.

There are so many beautiful, meaningful films I want to one day re-watch and re-experience. I can sometimes know that a movie is one I’ll go back to again and again the moment the credits roll.

The highest compliment I can pay to “Nomadland” is that I might not ever revisit it – because it feels so completely a memory that I’d like to recall just as I recall memories – incomplete, fragmented, as much sensation as information, fading but still held onto.

It is a moment of witnessing before the moment’s gone again.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Nomadland” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Frances McDormand plays Fern. Melissa Smith plays Dolly. Linda May and Swankie play versions of themselves. A number of other women have one-scene speaking parts. Usually, I’d list these characters and their actors, but because so many are playing versions of themselves, names are often only mentioned once, and most aren’t professional actors with headshots or promo stills, it’s difficult to line up who was who in each scene.

Suffice to say that these are the major parts for women, but that many other feature and this is an incomplete list.

“Nomadland” is also written and directed by Chloe Zhao (as well as produced and edited by her). It’s based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Occasionally they discuss men – Fern clearly holds trauma because of the loss of her husband and her own father, and a fellow vandweller named Dave is a friend who’s interested in her.

More often, however, they discuss how to change a tire, job openings, where they’re traveling to next. They tell their stories to each other, repeat their favorite memories, share crafts, take care of each other, describe how their vans got their names.

You can watch “Nomadland” on Hulu with a subscription.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

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