Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland begins with a worn Francis McDormand nervously pissing in the middle of nowhere, a gentle snowstorm buzzing past her as she looks around, the American landscape accursed by a kind of tragic spell. It’s an absurdly effecting moment, propelled by the many anxieties it unearths. Here is Fern, a grey-haired middle-aged woman, by herself in the middle of nowhere, somehow discomforted by the possibility of someone’s presence more so than the certainty of everyone’s absence. Through Nomadland, Chloe Zhao, who has just become the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for best director, excavates the poignant beauty of broke middle-aged Americans who after they are forced to live out of boxes, find redemption in the fact that these boxes move faster, move further than most homes can ever go.
One of my favourite memories of college is watching the Sean Penn-directed Into The Wild, a film about a young man who quits material life to live amid nature. The film meant rebellion to us at that age, a rebuke of modern life that we could sense would become a relay of assigned roles. To which effect Nomadland perhaps takes place 20-30 years down the line, where life must first be survived to append to it a sense of “living” it. Played by Francis McDormand, a self-effacing Fern is forced into a life on the road after her husband’s death and subsequent shutdown of the plant he worked for. Her road doesn’t lead anywhere in particular. It, in fact, courses between survival and sustenance, harmlessly paddled by the need to be just enough to be able to continue. Fern goes wherever she can find work, talks to whoever is standing next to her and rarely displays hostility for the circumstances that have followed her thus far, or await her in the future.
Nomadland is more of a docu-drama in the way it surveys Fern’s surroundings, and others like her who move around disenfranchised, yet carrying a collective portrait of discovery. Fern does mundane tasks with the alacrity of a hairpin holding together a bush in the middle of a cyclone. She’s there, being absorbed, unanimated by the world around her more than her taking in the world – like Into the Wild. It speaks volumes of the authenticity that both McDormand and Chloe bring to the film that there are periods where you forget if Fern is even the protagonist or if she seamlessly drifted into view. Which is why for the most part, Nomadland is frictionless, its key moments are the ones in which nothing really happens. Life, Zhao’s film tells us, can be looked at with the serenity of contentment, with the plausibility of lesser goals, despite the violence of its missteps and the cruelty of hope. Most cinema coming out of the economic collapse of 2008 is filled with either rage or extreme pathos for one or another kind of loss. Nomadland, on the other hand is a heartening tribute to those who rebuilt, those who suffered and somehow rescued a certain beauty, even nobility from the dreary depths of ruin.
Nomadland is filled with wrenching performances and cameos that can best be described as memories of people rather than roles played by actors.
Zhao’s film is a redemptive look at post-crisis life. It foregoes tossing the doomsday bowl for gently shaking the spoon to unearth something that whispers dignity. Fern, for example, chooses to withdraw herself from the possibility of romance with a suitor. It’s her way, perhaps, of transcending the attachments that did not allow her to be herself. In one scene, Fern’s sister hesitatingly confesses her admiration for her. “You were eccentric to other people, maybe seemed weird, but it was just because you were braver and more honest than everybody else. And you could see me, when I was hiding from everybody. Sometimes, you could see me before I could see myself,” she says. It is a rare personal moment in a film that otherwise walks past trying to dig Fern’s personality for answers we must all at some point think: What does she want from life? Questions that Nomadland tells us, can sometimes prevent us from becoming a part of something we didn’t know we could be. That maybe after you have had a particular idea of life robbed from you, you learn to belong to other things.
Apart from the McDormand, who must be a frontrunner at the Oscars in Best Actress category, Nomadland is filled with wrenching performances and cameos that can best be described as memories of people rather than roles played by actors. It’s evidence of Jhao’s control over not just the tone of the film but the boundaries of bodily acting that she wants her subjects to function within. Zhao mines a different America for visuals, the kind that echoes the brutality and beauty of hard lives. But these lives, Nomadland tells us, are not purposeless, but simply possession-less. These people owe only as much as they are willing to own – be it a home or the notional idea of what it must stand for.