Duration: 108 minutes
Writer/Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, Linda May, David Strathairn, Charlene Swankie
By Caz Armstrong
“Nomadland” is making huge waves on the 2020 festival circuit and is the first film ever to win the top prizes at both Toronto and Venice film festivals. Writer/Director Chloé Zhao’s latest feature is based on the book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder. It’s a visual poem that rests our minds on a particular marginalised section of US society.
Fern (Frances McDormand) has lost both her husband and her home. Her entire town was taken off the map with the closure of the area’s main employer and the removal of its zip code. She’s living in her van and working at the Amazon warehouse fulfilling orders for the American consumer. She’s been betrayed by life and societal ideals and she wants a new way to live.
Following up on a tip from a friend she sets out on the road to explore a new lifestyle and a new community. She is welcomed into the community of outsiders and establishes a new nomadic existence far removed from the consumerism of the rest of society. She drifts throughout the land, in and out of community, picking up seasonal work wherever she can.
There isn’t so much of a central goal to the story, it’s more of a rumination on a solitary lifestyle and a reflection of a new America.
We learn the stories of many people, mostly older women, who have turned to life on the road and find healing there. Many have experienced great loss or health problems and felt unable to continue to participate in a system that had let them down so fundamentally. They seek true community, simplicity and freedom.
Zhao manages to extract rich performances from a range of non-professional actors who are modern day nomads themselves. Playing versions of themselves, they were able to adjust the script to words that felt more natural, giving a realistic and intimate feel.
At times Fern is completely alone. It’s a difficult existence making meticulous use of the tiny amount of space available in the van, keeping up with its maintenance and keeping warm on freezing nights.
But at other times Fern is enveloped in this loving community of outsiders. The values shown are truly aspirational as people look after each other. Monetary value is far less relevant than the reciprocal act of generosity and they trade in time, skills, food and objects. The act of giving in itself cements trust and a bond between people who have very little.
Zhao’s studious and lamenting approach takes a fresh look at the landscape through the eyes of someone who wants to experience the world differently. Supported by the keen eye of cinematographer Joshua James Richards, the American West is turned from a place of pioneers forging progress to a place of fresh natural wonder. When the quest to continuously make things bigger and better is stripped away we can see the land in its natural beauty. Characters revel in this childlike wonder and can see this beautiful space afresh, free from the bonds of progress.
The score by Ludovico Einaudi upholds the beauty and loneliness of the film. A stripped back reverberating piano score fills our ears with a haunting soundscape that matches the bleak beauty of the landscape. Swelling bowed strings accompany moments of deeper emotion, giving us an insight into Fern’s loneliness and the value of community.
There are many contradictions explored here. On the one hand Fern is devastated every time she stands and watches people drive away and out of her life. But she also resists taking a fixed abode. She exists in between the desire for freedom and solitude, and the desire for community. McDormund shows us a whole range of deep emotions along that spectrum, showing that isolation brings both pain and comfort, and that friendships can be both joyful and overbearing.
Fern would much rather live off the grid, free from the bounds of constantly seeking money. But she still needs it to survive. She is happy to learn and is proficient in a huge range of practical skills required for taking on new jobs. But she does occasionally need to work at Amazon. It’s shown as a fun and caring place to work but it’s still the machine that feeds American consumerism. She has to become one of the gears in this machine in order to support her freedom from it.
“Nomadland” is a beautiful reflection of a different kind of life. The America we have come to know is creaking at the seams and those who fall through the cracks are forging a new way of life. It’s based on noble fundamentals and brings much freedom and healing, but it is also very hard and lonely. This is a film that will make you re-examine some of your most fundamental of attitudes and look for a deeper connection with both nature and community.