Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells
Director: Chloe Zhao
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
An empathetic, life-affirming portrait of a displaced woman who, in response to multiple personal losses, sets off in her van to free herself from her hitherto tethered existence, Nomadland travels beyond the obvious in its examination of what it means to be at home with a heap of privations.
Written, directed and edited by Chloe Zhao, the film journeys into the world of modern-day nomads, human detritus of a lopsided economy, to craft a trenchant but understated takedown of the American dream. It isn't just any old cinematic critique of a system that tends to push people off the grid, and to the wall, when the unfeeling machine that runs it no longer needs ageing hands at the levers. It is both forceful and measured.
Zhao infuses her adaptation of journalist Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book of the same name with infectious warmth and tenderness while presenting an unflinching look at an itinerant subculture and its roots. Adopting a fly-on-the-wall approach, she observes a group of older Americans in their campers and RVs, driving from campground to campground in search of work.
The director has a marvelous ally in Frances McDormand, in whose phenomenal performance an individual's urge to escape coalesces with her desire not to forget - "what's remembered lives", she says - to create something far greater than the sum total of the combination.
Nomadland, which has several real-life nomads playing themselves, provides a portrait of life on the margins viewed as if through a window of a slow train trundling through a bleak, arid landscape that, notwithstanding, or perhaps because of, its desolation, is an apt backdrop for a tale of uncommon human resilience.
Nomadland, playing in multiplexes, is grim, gritty, even heart-breaking, but at its core the film is a celebration of people who have kept their chins up, and their faith in themselves intact, in the face of adversity. The film's protagonist, Fern (McDormand), is one such.
The year is 2011. She has lost her full-time livelihood, her husband and her town (following the closure of the mine that employed her in Empire, Nevada). She drives around the country looking for whatever work she can get. She wants to live, not just subsist, with dignity.
At an employment office, Fern is curtly told that there is nothing available for her. She certainly isn't looking for charity. I love work, she asserts. But the institutions that exist to help people like her do not have the means, or perhaps even the intention, of doing so.
At the behest of a friend that Fern has makes on the road - Linda May, the principal figure in Bruder's book, playing herself - she joins a group of 'workampers' who, in turn, have drawn inspiration from real-life nomadic community leader Bob Wells (again, as himself).
Wells blames "the tyranny of the dollar and the marketplace" for people working themselves to death and then being put out to pasture. He advocates an alternative minimalist lifestyle aimed at bypassing exploitative structures and creating a culture in which humans have each other's backs when institutions fail them.
Nomadland, which won the Venice Golden Lion last year and is competing for a clutch of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, isn't just a story of people dealing with love, loss, memories of happier days and a struggle to stay afloat. It is an exploration of the notion of home. When Fern meets a family who she knew back in her town, she tells them that she's isn't "homeless", only "houseless". As the film proceeds to show us, there is a huge difference between the two.
In another scene, an Amazon warehouse worker shows the tattoos on her body - all of them Morrissey lyrics. One on her arm reads: Home, is it just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?" Recreating a sense of a home lost because of recession is Fern's foremost concern. When an automobile repairman suggests that she get rid of her old van, she asserts: "I can't. I live in there. It's my home."
Bob Wells has no answers to the questions that life has thrown at Fern - he admits as much in a crucial conversation - but he asserts that connecting to nature and becoming part of a community and a tribe could be a way of kickstarting a process of healing. Fern heeds his words.
She builds relationships with Linda, Dave (David Strathairn) and Swankie (playing herself). Someone gives Fern a ride into town when her van has a flat tire; another helps her find an overnight parking space. But not every gesture of support ends well. On one occasion, a fuming Fern is left with broken crockery. But this is life on the road and forgiving and moving on is of the essence.
So, in the larger context, is letting go of the past. A couple of inducements are held out - one from her sister Dolly, married for over three decades to a man in the real-estate business, another from a friend who likes "being around her" - but Fern refuses to swallow the bait and return to a settled life.
Her sister can understand what Fern is looking for although the former laments that her sibling's going away left a hole in her life. What the nomads are doing, Dolly says, is not too different from what the pioneers did. What Fern is doing is an American tradition."
True, but the circumstances that have compelled Fern to summon the land's frontier spirit has little to do with tradition. Survival is the key. Nomadland explores the possibility of older Americans who have been left behind by a cruel, profit-driven society surmounting their setbacks, bonding with each other and thriving despite the storms they have weathered.
Zhao's directorial style - it blends fiction with reality with seamless fluidity - is meditative and penetrating. She intersperses passages of kitchen-sink realism with uplifting moments that lay emphasis on the indomitable will of the survivor. And when the actress embodying the director's vision on screen is someone as blindingly brilliant as McDormand (who is also one of the producers of the film), the admixture of grief and inner strength, of restlessness and repose, becomes that much more moving.
McDormand's face is a canvas that waves of emotions have a free run of. It glides from aloof and rough to bewitching and tender with amazing ease and alacrity. On the outside, she is like the rocks that dominate the landscape; inside she is a welter of conflicting pulls and pressures, every bit of which is visible on her expressive visage.
Zhao handles the key non-actors - Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells - with such astounding skill that none of them is ever out of sync with the demands of the film. Not surprisingly, the emotions they convey are always raw and real.
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards, on one level, evokes the dwarfing vastness of the spaces that the characters inhabit. On another, he captures the stimulating intimacy that develops between people connecting with each other at a level far deeper than the ones that economic interests can engender.
Nomadland, cinema at its quietest and finest, is at once searing and sobering.