Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century‘, the Oscar winning film, ‘Nomadland‘ plays out pretty much as expected, at least in regards to the meandering narrative that feels as free flowing as the desert wind. But on an emotional level, well, that is where this film, as directed with a clairvoyant understanding of a person’s internalized pain by Chloé Zhao, truly flies up and out into the heavens. She unearths a raw quiet energy and discomfort that finds a way, maybe powered by that free flowing wind, to get under your skin and into your blood. It isn’t overly powerful nor does it shower you with high-end emotions at the cinematic climax (if there even is one), but the resulting engagement subtly burrows in like a bug into a rug. IThe film, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director, intricately cradles the hardship and heartache that lives and breaths inside Frances McDormand’s intricate portrayal of a complicated middle-aged woman, Fern, who finds herself adrift on the road, much to her internal delight.
The tender, quiet nomad’s journey is as devastatingly moving as the radical nomadist and anti-capitalist leader Bob Wells’ complicated emotional monologue that he delivers near the end of this beautiful film. His story seems to be etched into the celluloid, appearing as himself at the center of this nomadic circle. The film packs up the emotional responses as tight and compressed as the inside of Fern’s van, beating its own rhythm outward into those gorgeous night skies. “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” There is a level of euphoria and freedom that exists inside her and this tribe, one that echos a psychological detachment that many seek in order to find peace. Their sadness and grief exist, in a way, as their loving companion, and only those that understand are tolerable to be around. It might read as something more deadly painful to witness, and in a way it is, especially for some of the people that come around Fern who aren’t of that pack, but their need for this structure is a heartache that only is bearable when curled up in their own bed inside their van, safe and secure in their much-needed autonomy and sense of control.
Although ‘Nomadland‘ focuses on the spectacularly well defined Fern, thanks to the very fine work of McDormand, this stellar piece of filmatic art is really about a generation of lost older Americans who have found their foundations altered with the proverbial rug pulled out from under their feet, possibly by the 2008 crash, but in many ways, that’s not the causation entirely. It is about a New America that has no need for these hard working souls. Rather than volunteering to rot away in squalor or isolation, these grey-haired middle class survivors have literally taken to the road. Unable to afford ‘typical’ retirement, they find their way to some other meaning in the madness. They float, naked in a stream of water, roaming the country in camper vans called home. They gather together as nomadic tribes from time to time around a campfire for the sake of community and connection, but prefer to live out their days sleeping and living in their mobile homes, and by that, I’m not referring to those colossal vehicles that Fern and her buddies wander into one day, marveling at their luxury, like middle class homeowners getting a tour of a McMansion. Fulfilling their internalized work ethics with seasonal jobs in bars, restaurants or an Amazon warehouse in Nevada, they find a level of peace with themselves that one can truly buy into. There is purpose, and meaning in their wanderings. Fern’s sister, in one of the most touching scenes, compares them to American pioneers, touring the wilderness with a nobility and honor that can’t really be denied. The moment sings with an honesty that can’t be denied, as we watch this brave wanderer set of by foot down the road, determined to return to her broken down home on wheels.
McDormand, already an Oscar winner for ‘Fargo‘ and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,Missouri’, inhabits Fern as radiantly and simply as all those atoms in our bodies that have been transported from a blown-up star many light years away. Her engagement with those other nomads help smile away the tears, as the cast of mostly amateur actors tickle those engaging ivories with generosity and care. They look after one another in a way that maybe neighbors in this current self-centered America never would. Fern remembers, with a widow’s grief, all that matters to her well being, and in that remembrance, she lives, solidly and honestly. “I’m sure you took good care of him, Fern,” she is told with an authentic air that is both intimate and straightforward. “I did” she answers, with a knowledge and clarity that speaks volumes. This former substitute teacher from Empire, Nevada, a town that was unmercifully shut down and wiped off the map when the factory in town closed, finds unknown comfort inside her ratty van. Filled with memories and a Wedding Poem that will break your heart with its sweet passion, she stands clear as part of the ones who had to depart, packing up as much as she could when she took to the road void of all self pity. There is anger, submerged deep, but it filters out here and there, especially when others try to sell the American dream of home-ownership, or when they try to make her believe that the way she is living isn’t what it needs to be.
‘Nomadland‘ is an epic poem and portrait of an emotional space void of all commercial bells and whistles. It’s a communal embrace of the pain and understanding that exists in the people who she meets on the road. McDormand’s energy connects, simply, with a smile and a nod, but not too much else. She is comfortable in her aloneness, turning away from hands that reach out, while offering what she can to others who get it. She’s a symbolic narrator, taking us through a barren rocky landscape of souls that don’t fit into the common structure. McDormand and Zhao give this visually powerful creation life and honor, steering us with a high level of empathetic care into the vans and the existence of all these other nomads with an eye for vivid richness. The two (and everyone else involved) do stellar work together, as if made for this mystical landscape, side-stepping the rabbit holes of dramatic tension that would normally pull in the theatrical, and finding only the truest of vistas to take in with all our heart.
The only other fictional character is a fellow nomad who tries to form a deeper bond with the standoffish Fern. Played by the magnificent David Strathairn (‘Good Night, and Good Luck‘), the entanglement he attempts to establish is simple and kind, but ultimately doesn’t fit into the tight quarters of Fern’s van. His crush is tender enough, and although I kept having pangs of anxiety that something terrible was going to happen to this lone woman in a van, Zhao has a different energy and roadmap for this woman to travel down. It’s a spiritualized quest for inner understanding, that sometimes feels sad while retaining a sense of self awareness that is compelling and deep. The balance sings on the wind, as we look out over the Badlands of South Dakota and take in the lonely clouds on the horizon. It’s a glorious sight, one that Fern truly takes in with wonder, never losing her exceptional focus and drive. ‘Nomadland‘ is an intelligent road trip through a person’s psyche by way of the smaller rougher roads less travelled. It’s a thoughtful journey into grief and survival worth taking, mainly because of the depth of Zhao’s film-making skill, and the wonder within the eyes of McDormand’s Oscar winning performance. Thank you Linda May, and Swankie for sharing your kayak swallow song. It will live in my heart for the length of my eternal human life road trip.
For more from Ross click here