Synopsis – After losing everything in the Great Recession, a woman embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
My Take – Honestly, if not for the glorious thumping of reviews I have seen over the past six months or so, this one would not have been on watch list. Mainly, having been living in the Middle East for the past 23 years, I procure no knowledge of the term ‘nomad‘ or the definition behind their lives. Nor had I any idea of ‘workamper’ movement. Add to the fact that I have yet to see writer-director Chloé Zhao’s previous efforts, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), though like most I too am keenly awaiting the release of her first high-profile venture, Eternals (2021), which comes from Marvel Studios.
However, I am widely familiar to the wild talents of Frances McDormand, as both her Oscar winning roles in Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) continue to rank among my favorites. Hence l decided to risk a jump onto this bandwagon just to get an introduction to the acclaimed talents of the filmmaker, who not only just wrote and directed this neo-Western, but also edited and co-produced it.
An effort I was well rewarded for as the film surprisingly left me speechless. Even when the end credits stopped rolling I struggled to find the right words to capture what a beautiful, unique, touching, and reflective experience this one turned out to be.
The film is based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which deals with the real-life phenomenon of Americans in their 60s who live in their vans and travel around the country, congregating in groups and seeking seasonal employment. These are people who were left unemployed by the Great Recession. They’re too young for Social Security, too old to start a new career, and have just enough money to keep a van running.
And here, director Zhao who has taken the seemingly impossible-to-adapt the book, has created a fiercely sentimental story of loss and displacement, that veers between cinematic poetry and unflinching documentary, by providing a look at America’s roads and landscapes through the eyes of folks that society tends to overlook.
Yes, this story isn’t meant to provide a rosy venture into the benefits of nomadic living; instead, it’s a glance at what it means to leave places and the people who take such ventures. Though that may not sound like comfort viewing in these hard times, but this isn’t a distressing film. It suggests that the road less traveled can yield joy as well as sorrow, and that it can fulfill a person’s need for both solitude and community. Hence, resulting in an achingly beautiful and sad, a profound work of empathy from filmmaker Zhao.
The story follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a 61-year old woman, who along with the loss of her husband, has lost her entire former life as following the economic collapse her entire mining town where she lived is essentially dissolved. Now living in her van, Fern becomes a modern-day nomad by taking odd jobs to make ends meet, most notably in an Amazon warehouse. And as one job ends, she prepares to move on, until a fellow nomad suggests she come to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a gathering of nomads in the desert, which will provide not only a sense of community, but how-to seminars for those new to the lifestyle.
Once she reaches there, Fern finds comfort in the gatherings she attends with Linda May and Swankie (real life nomads who play themselves), a close companionship with Dave (David Strathairn), and with others who she meets on her journey. But most importantly, she begins to evolve to finds a sense of independence.
The film can at times feel like a tourist experience, as this is partly the nature of the nomad lifestyle, just passing through. Hence making it a bare and beautifully drawn out experience that paces and feels exactly like the lives and experiences it portrays. The landscapes are stunning, the camerawork intimate and always thoughtful with its choices. The film makes subtle, deliberate gestures, and it all culminates into something really special. As Fern progresses in her journey into this unknown, a melancholic tone permeates the cinematography, contrasted with the sounds and images that are distinctly part of the story.
Though her story is made up, the world through which Fern traveling is real, made all the more striking. We see the clothes cycling through a washing machine at a laundromat. We hear the nomads singing together, a reminder that there’s a temporary home to be found even in the most transient of places. As for Fern, she’s a particularly tricky character: cool but not unfriendly, private but not closed off.
There’s a wonderful, nonverbal moment of character detail when Fern is offered a dog who has been left behind at an RV park, but she gives the animal a quick, gentle pat on the head, then turns and quickly walks away. The few big moments and monologues director Zhao does make space for are reserved for other characters, fleshing out the world around Fern and allowing for gut-punch moments that don’t require uncharacteristic dramatic concessions from her, or from the plot.
As the film is exploring a larger theme, and has no grand revelations or twists to juice up the drama, it may feel slow-paced at times, dragging its feet in the stunning cinematography from Joshua James Richards. However, the pacing indicates that this narrative is purposefully meant to mimic the lifestyle of the nomads who drift from place to place. And yes, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the seeming emptiness of Fern’s life at times, but the emphasis is on the details. Also the grief that drives Fern is only gradually revealed, through objects and moments, and is addressed in tandem with the pros and cons of the nomadic lifestyle.
The music from Ludovico Einaudi is also exceptional in its complementary nature and ability to leave the quiet moments unspoiled, while also driving our empathy and emotions.
Some may wonder why writer-director Zhao didn’t simply make a straightforward documentary about nomadic life. But there’s something about the way she uses McDormand‘s star power, blurring fiction and nonfiction techniques, that gets at something deeper and more mysterious.
Hence, a significant reason this film works is the incredible performance by two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. It’s hard to imagine another actor who could share the same spaces with them as casually as McDormand does, whether Fern is bubble-wrapping packages at an Amazon warehouse or mingling with other travelers in a crowded trailer park. David Strathairn, the only other name actor in this otherwise non-professional cast, the only other name actor in this otherwise non-professional cast, also brings out the charm when he is obviously crushing on Fern.
Nevertheless, the real stars of the film are actual nomad turned actors, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, who I felt a connection too and wanted to know more about each one. On the whole, ‘Nomadland’ is a stunningly unique experience backed by masterclass in acting and film-making.
Directed – Chloé Zhao
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes