Shower gold upon Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s quietly wondrous, graceful look of the flight and plight of America’s open roads.
What is home, to you? Is it the smothering softness of your bedsheets, the assurance of a toilet seat, the wall-to-wall bristling of the carpet as you shuffle room-to-room, the spirit-lifting aroma of a meal bubbling away, the smiley, needy comfort of a pet?
Or is it an essence: an unquantifiable, untactile belonging? ‘I’m not homeless,’ Frances McDormand’s nomadic Fern says. ‘I’m just houseless, not the same thing right?’
Check out the teaser trailer for Nomadland below:
Ditching domestic life, travelling, pitching or parking wherever law or land will allow; for many, it’s a fantasy tethered to holidays, dreams or movies, like Into the Wild or The Beach.
For the nomads, it’s both choice and necessity. The way of this world is presented via Fern, a 60-something widow put out to pasture following the collapse of the mining town of Empire, Nevada.
From the ashes of her former life, she forges a new one in her van (aptly and valiantly named Vanguard). Looking from the gravel, it’s a scrappy bed-on-wheels. For Fern, its value is in the small things: the finely-tuned set-up, the knick-knacks, quirky innovations for extra space, long-held possessions.
We don’t start at crumble, we don’t end in death – Zhao’s movie, based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction work Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, is a slow-moving snapshot of drifters in the latter stages of their lives, forced to take up life on the move in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis.
From Songs My Brother Taught Me, to The Rider, to this, the filmmaker – Asian-born, later immersed in Western culture – has continually captured a side of America – a vibe – rarely framed on-screen. The states are imposingly vast, but it’s no wasteland; its richness is sprinkled, not towering.
It’s a cast mostly made up of non-actors playing ever-so-slightly fictionilised versions of themselves, including: Linda May, a stranger-turned-sister to Fern; Charlene Swankie, a loveably candid woman on her way out, focused on a last sight of swallows; and Bob Wells, a real-life anti-capitalist leader and the organiser of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of nomads.
There’s the exception of David Strathairn’s David, a bit of a klutz with down-to-earth intentions, a friendly face as the movie sails more decisively from its landscape into character study.
There’s no larger plot with the dialogue. The conversations, big and brief, serve to illustrate the fleeting yet intensely real companionship that comes with the lifestyle.
There’s unflinching, humorous realism with regards to waste disposal, wholesome nattering – in one moment, Fern dubs her and Linda as ‘the bitches of the Badlands’ – and utterly tragic insights into cause and effect, whether it be money or loss, young and old. However, at no time is certainty in doubt; they don’t find their joie de vivre somewhere, it’s anywhere.
Bar one younger actor whose presence feels entirely immaterial, the movie is thoroughly and engagingly warm. The kindness Zhao has, not only for fellow nomads but also strangers on the inside, is a magnificent quality for a modern director – especially surprising considering today’s state of affairs.
Post-viewing, one of Nomadland’s more interesting quandaries is the presentation of Amazon among other part-time gigs. Throughout, Fern and others take up seasonal work for the ecommerce giant, softly smiling at each other as they pack, scan and ferry trays and boxes. Considering the notorious testimony of workers, knee-jerk feelings could inspire contempt. The reality isn’t so compassionate.
Sure, it’s a roof over their heads, a cash supply, a place to be. But there’s no prospects, only the promise of rotating shifts under a banner well equipped to offer far, far more work.
Its permanence outweighs the staff, and while not an angry presentation, per se, it’s purposely shiny, vapid and cold – even more so than the snowy landscapes illustrating backdrops so prominently. The invocation of Macbeth’s ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy didn’t go unnoticed.
Very rare is it that the cinematography – beautifully staged by Joshua James Richards – so clearly evokes the mood of a piece. The mountainous scale, the endless horizons; sights familiar for the Old West, brought to the fore. As Fern wanders the dusk-tinged campsites or drives under the twilight blue skies of Insomnia, you’re actively swept up into its grandeur. Please, I beg, see it on a big screen.
Impressive too is Ludovico Einaudi’s score. Although, while his heart-aching Fuori Dal Mondo made a stunning accompaniment to the brutality of This Is England, the elegant piano work here lets the clashing emotions ruminate under Richards’ and Zhao’s eyes.
McDormand’s performance is remarkably, effortlessly gentle. Her Oscar-winning, gritted-teeth turn in Three Billboards was fiercely watchable. Here, she blends into the land without disappearing from the conversation; every move she makes, every breath she takes is completely believable. Cheery then forlorn, resilient but letting her guard down with little falls of the guise or lonely swims; the perfect agent.
An ode to ‘the ones who had to depart’, Nomadland is a breathtaking portrait of America’s freedom at the movies.
Nomadland is due for release on January 1, 2021. Reviewed as part of London Film Festival.
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