As entire industries were exhausted following worldwide recession, thousands of people became displaced as the industrial towns built around them completely closed down, their ZIP codes retired. Without these hubs, many of the workers lost permanence – not just of work but of home, of family and of presence in society. For some there was family to fall back on. For others, there was just the road.
Fern, a transient worker and widow, travels in her camper-van the length of the US seeking manual labour. Unable and unwilling to settle down or to accept help from others, she forges her own path, for better or worse, as she moves from state to state making just enough money from seasonal jobs to keep her van running. As she moves around, she builds lasting bonds with people in similar situations before parting ways, sometimes meeting again, sometimes saying a final goodbye.
Chloé Zhao’s film expertly blurs the line between drama and documentary. Co-produced by Frances McDormand, Nomadland is based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction account, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. The film explores the lives and stories of the book’s three main figures – Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells – by using fictional characters Fern and Dave (played with touching subtlety by Frances McDormand and David Strathairn) to inject a sense of narrative. Much of the power of the movie, however, comes from the choice to cast the members of the extant Nomad community in America as themselves. Fern’s journey may be fictional but her interactions with the genuine Nomads of Bruder’s book reveal its veracity.
To say it’s bitter-sweet does the film no justice at all.
Aiding in this truthfulness is a shooting style and sound design which foreground the film’s more documentary nature. Though Ludovico Einaudi’s score evokes the tenuous nature of Fran’s existence and tentatively pushes toward the sadness that lies behind it, many of the film’s most charged moments come from silence or little moments of captured sound. The scrape of a folding chair against a rocky landscape, the rustle of the layers of blankets necessary to keep from freezing: highlighted in the soundtrack are the hardships all Nomads face as part of this lifestyle.
Through these hardships, more glimpses of Fern’s character are allowed to shine and McDormand effortlessly conveys Fern’s complex relationship with this lifestyle. She’s not only a widow to her husband, but to an entire way of life, and she carries both griefs equally. In a particularly pertinent scene some pushing from another character encourages Fern to consider the significance of her wedding ring, an eternal circle which forever links her to her deceased husband. Her acknowledged inability to take it off is cited as a positive influence on her life but the truth is more complex than that. She can’t return to a house, fixed income or family life any more than she can bring her husband back.
McDormand gives a sympathetic performance as Fern showing her as frustrated, yet somehow emotionally disconnected. Naturally, she carries the drama of the film by losing herself in her role but, in keeping with the realism behind the story, the most stirring scenes come not from her relationship with her sister, or with the forlorn Dave – played with muted sorrow by David Strathairn. The really special moments come from Fern’s interactions with the true Nomads, Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells. The moments where some of their life experiences are revealed, the journeys that brought them to or keep them part of this existence never fail to be heart-wrenching.
Nomadland is a highly emotionally charged film, miraculously touching in its ambivalence, its realism reinforced by Zhao’s intimate style. Using only natural light to film her handheld shots, she captures both the vitality of her subjects and the beauty of the sometimes-bleak landscape. Filmed for a gorgeous IMAX release, the version presented on Disney+ is in a scope-framed 2.39:1, losing some of the feeling of expansiveness but none of the emotional impact in the process.
Complementary to the strain of the film between human and landscape, the film frequently blends one with the other: a close up of Fern, turning away to reveal the prairie stretched out ahead of her. Simple things like small rocks take on a relic like status, imbued with wonder and symbolic connection to the souls of individuals. At one point, we see Fern’s point of view as she literally watches the open plains around her through a hole in a rock, at once connecting her to her friend and to nature. The entire land is given a clearly spiritual significance to those living so close to it – their razor’s-edge existence both terrifying and transcendent.
...miraculously touching in its ambivalence.
That transcendental connection to the land goes some way toward explaining how each of the characters has been able to excise themselves from society, many citing it as a positive lifestyle choice deliberately made, their freedom from society something to be celebrated and admired. But an undercurrent of human tragedy seems to run deep within each of them. Tragedy which perhaps doesn’t constitute the entire reason for their nomadic existence, but certainly informs it in a very meaningful way. The film rarely feels indulgent of these tragedies, but treats them reverently and honestly, coaxing hidden emotional depths from its characters, but returning always to the near-mystical connection to the land. To say it’s bitter-sweet does the film no justice at all.
So frequently do films elicit powerful emotional responses from creating recognisable human connection through adverse circumstances that it feels like a veil lifted to be shown that equally powerful is this conscious disconnect that seems to be common to the characters and people of Nomadland. A disconnect that provides both liberation and deep loneliness.
Nomadland is available to watch from 30th April 2021 included in your Disney+ subscription and a cinema release is planned for May.
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