Imagine, you wake up one day only to discover that the town you have been living in almost your entire life, is no longer a town. You realise you need to relocate because, what was once home to you, has nothing left for you, not even a zip code. Your search for a new home begins as you hold these lines close to your heart, "Home, is it just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you"?
Chloé Zhao, the extraordinary Chinese-born filmmaker (who is also directing Marvel's Eternals) and the unparalleled Frances McDormand together explore this question throughout their much-admired film, 'Nomadland'. The film has already garnered the Golden Lion and the People's Choice Award, which makes it the first film ever to win the top prize at both Venice and Toronto film festivals. It would not come as a surprise if Frances brings her third Oscar home and Chloé, her first.
The film revolves around Fern, a woman in her 60s, who has just lost her husband and her town, Empire. Empire used to be a company town for US Gypsum Corporation in Nevada. The small town, once populated with more than 750 people, turned into a ghost town when the company shut down its plant after 88 years, due to fallen demands caused by the infamous 2008 recession. It was truly the end of an empire and Fern was one of its fallen knights.
The film is a dramatised version of the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Nomadland has a dark blueish setting and instantly prepares you for some heart-breaking moments, yet at the same time intrigues you to hope for a happy ending. There is something unique about Chloé's direction regarding her portrayal of human emotions and Frances fits right in it.
Now, if you are familiar with Frances McDormand's acting performances, you already know you are not going to be left disappointed. The two times Academy Award winner for Fargo (1997) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) is nothing but stellar. Frances as Fern delivers an unmatched acting performance in Nomadland, and Chloé's direction is the icing on the cake. Fern has lost her home, but she refuses to be called 'homeless'. According to Fern, she carries her home with her, a van which she bought by selling all her belongings; she calls it 'vanguard'.
Fern pursues an itinerant life-style and continues her search for employment as it is necessary for her survival. She works in Amazon CamperForce, a seasonal job program for enthusiastic RVers, in Wall Drug, in Badlands National Park and she keeps moving. Just like her seasonal jobs, she finds some seasonal friends along the road. These friendships prove to be seasonal, yet meaningful.
Unlike Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, a young graduate who started his spiritual journey being disenchanted with modern civilization, Fern is not a rebel. She is not trying to make any statement by rejecting conventional society. She is simply trying to exist, all by herself, remembering her departed husband and exploring the scenic beauty of nature.
Fern, like her name, is resourceful. She is remarkably hard-working and expresses her fondness for her work. She is mostly quiet but always listening. She lives her nomad life soulfully and simultaneously maintains a working relationship with the non-nomads. She has however reached a point where she rejects every opportunity to shift into a stable life. She carries her heartaches alone. She chooses her lifestyle and does not starve for urban happiness.
What left me particularly fascinated was Chloé's ability to direct non-actors in the same frames with Frances. Apart from Dave (starred by David Strathairn), Fern meets Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells in her wandering. These characters, who are real-life nomads, are playing fictionalised versions of themselves in Nomadland. However, it is not new to Chloé. She has directed non-actors before in her American western drama film, 'The Rider' (2017). This gives you an idea of Chloé's unique directional capacities, which makes Nomadland unforgettable.
Chloé does not shy away from showing the difficulties of living in a campervan; the cold, the mess, the uncertainties and so on. But she also highlights that all of these sufferings fail to diminish the sense of freedom and beauty these nomads crave. The film discusses mental health issues, terminal diseases, suicide, and death, and tries to exhibit how these issues shape people's perceptions, in their distinctive ways. Nomadland shows how deaths of your loved ones can make a difference in your idea of living a good-life.
The cinematographer of Nomadland, Joshua James Richard, makes it look like almost a travel blog, showing picturesque scenes of the horizons and pale-peach sunrises stretching endlessly around the American West.
At least for a while, Nomadland will make you rethink your life, whether you wish to be a workhorse and whether you'd be willing to work yourself to death like many around you. It will make you weep in silence with Fern, especially if you have recently lost someone. Regardless, it will be worth your while.