The neo-Western Nomadland made Oscar history this year, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. This film won’t be as forgettable as previous Oscar winners like Green Book.
The news of the first non-white female filmmaker to ever win an Oscar for Best Director made global headlines. Along with the Best Director award, Chloé Zhao also became the first woman to ever receive four nominations in a single year. Oscar voters are not the same people they were even a year ago, both statistically and psychologically. Years after fielding the “#OscarsSoWhite” criticism, late last June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences completed its diversification goal. They doubled their female as well as non-white memberships by inviting 819 additional film industry professionals to join their ranks. Among these, there are Indian actors like Hrithik Roshan and Alia Bhatt. In a statement, the Academy said, “The 2020 class is 45% women, 36% underrepresented ethnic/racial communities, and 49% international from 68 countries.”
Nomadland is set around the time of the financial crisis of 2008, when various businesses closed down, one of which is portrayed to be the “Gypsum” plant, where the protagonist works. Played by Frances McDormand, Fern, our lead character, soon disappears into the inherent pain and innocuous thoughts of her character, after the closure of the plant. Consequently, Fern decides to travel the country in her van, whilst picking up odd jobs, and grows accustomed to a nomadic lifestyle. She is simultaneously trapped and free, living a life of dichotomies.
With millions of people out of work due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn, the film offers a sobering glimpse into the grim destiny of those without close family, retirement savings and other safety nets to see them into their later years. Even though the film was shot pre-lockdown, it’s incredible how it has taken on a greater meaning and depth watching it now. It doesn’t take much for one to notice, while looking around, how we’ve been torn asunder by the economic collapse, a fading middle class, political upheaval, a broken healthcare system and the ever-raging war between fact and fiction in these highly polarising times.
Chloé Zhao blends the drama and documentary elements, casting many of the real-life nomads who inspired her screenplay, elegantly capturing the contradictions of contemporary American life. In many ways, she provides a reflection of the solitary journey of life. Interestingly, Zhao, who also edited the film, has sprinkled many hints of how there are many nomadic elements in nature and the stories around us.
The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is in sync with the mood of the film. In the first few scenes itself, the audience is made aware of the mellow tone the rest of the film will follow. The pauses, the long shots and the stillness are all reflective of the stagnant and introspective nature of the film. What’s even more impressive is that there’s a poetic beauty in its stillness and calmness. Even visually, the film resonates broadly, following a dysphoric year.
With Frances McDormand’s career-best (and Oscar-winning) performance, the film shows you how sometimes it’s all right for nature to put you into perspective and, in a way, give purpose to life in the process. In a year when we’ve all, irrespective of our backgrounds and economic statuses, gone through periods of isolation and grief in some form or the other, it gives us an inside view into the lives of these people. It shows us, so immaculately, how they feel and how beautiful humanity is despite the conditions.
In one of the scenes, we see Fern working at a massive Amazon warehouse. The film, thankfully, doesn’t seem like it’s making a commentary on the cruelty of capitalism. A polemical film of that sort probably wouldn’t have been received so well in a year when even the biggest capitalistic entertainment industry, the movie industry, had come to a standstill. The film rather touches on the system’s underlying inherent problems, treating it as a necessary evil. It offers a glimpse into the life of these daily wage earners and migrants and more importantly, the inevitability of their obsolescence. It asks us the questions: what is home? Is it something fluid? Is life all about moving swiftly from one long, painful uncertainty to the next?
Ultimately, Nomadland acts as a portrait of the lives of the outcasts of the world who survive and adapt according to the extremes they’re pushed into. These people make up a pretty significant part of our society. Films have always acted as an account of the times people live in, acting as a reflection of reality. The idea of art mimicking real life is as old as time itself. Both the good and bad aspects of history have been documented on camera in some form or the other, for over a century. A decade from now, people are going to look back at this unprecedented time in our history, trying to study where we failed and what led to it. But more importantly, it’s going to make them look at the beautiful art born out of such alarming situations. As the great Roger Ebert once said, ‘movies are like a machine that generates empathy.’ Movies like Nomadland stand as testament to that statement, especially at a time like this, begging us to ask for better, thus becoming better as a society.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.