Nomadland is simple yet resonant. There is a poetic beauty in its stillness and calmness. It lingers in your mind long after the closing credits have rolled. It’s subtle and restrained, and yet evocative and thoughtful. Even though there is a serene milieu to the film, it invokes a chaos of emotion within us – and mind you, that is no easy feat.
Fern is a recently widowed woman, who lived in the city of Empire, Nevada, where she and her husband worked for decades. However, the financial crunch of 2008 led to the closure of the Gypsum plant they worked at, which thereby led to the closure of the entire town. Consequently, Fern decides to travel the country in her van whilst trying to do odd jobs around the country. What follows is a tender and serene take on solitude. Nomadland shows us a peek into the very distinctive lifestyle and customs of nomads. We understand the nuances of how the community functions as well as their various traditions. Fern does seasonal odd jobs at the Amazon Fulfilment Centre and works as a Camp Host at a campground to obtain necessary funds to sustain her for the rest of the year.
In an interesting sequence, Fern meets an old student of hers from when she tutored briefly at school, who asks her if she is homeless, to which Fern responds that she is not ‘homeless’, just ‘houseless’. And that sentence underlines the major essence of Nomadland. We live in a heavily capitalistic and materialistic world. We latch onto possessions, which thereby gives rise to an ever-increasing greed. In a peculiar way, this movie paints with subtle strokes the effects of the capitalist machinery on people and the adversities of capitalism. In search of their dream home, most people spend their lifetimes paying off the mortgage loan and in many cases, that’s what it remains – a ‘dream’. For people from the nomad community (like Fern), the road is their home. Just as a co-traveller explains, for them, “it’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting.” Interestingly, the film is not a social commentary on the cruelty of capitalism; instead Nomadland treats capitalism as a necessary evil. While Fern doesn’t yearn for materialistic possessions, she does need cash for her basic necessities and for petrol, and so she does her seasonal jobs. The nomads prefer to barter their items with each other rather than selling them. Through this journey, Fern makes a few close friends but owing to the nature of the community and the lifestyle, the chances of them meeting are purely based on fate and coincidence. The friendships they make might be fleeting but they are meaningful and strong. One character mentions to Fern that one of the most amazing aspects of the nomad community is that ‘there is never a final goodbye’, a manner of saying that there is always hope.
It’s quite amazing to see how incredibly Frances McDormand camouflages herself with her character in every film. From the fiercely aggressive mother of a murdered girl in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to the silent and observant nomadic traveller in Nomadland, McDormand is able disappear into the inherent pain and innocuous thoughts of her character with absolute ease. There is an inexplicable calmness to her demeanour that is exuded all throughout the film. She is scared yet vigilant; naïve yet sharp; content yet empty. Director Chloé Zhao very skilfully creates a poetic milieu of serenity and introspection. She displays her restraint and delicately executes several sequences incredibly. She is very much cognisant of one of the rules of Filmmaking 101: ‘less is more’. The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is very much in sync with the mood of the film. The pauses, the long shots and the stillness are all reflective of the stagnant and introspective nature of the film. A well-deserved Oscar nomination.
However, underneath all of this, I believe that Nomadland is, in many ways, a reflection of the solitary journey of life. Interestingly, Zhao has sprinkled many hints of how there are many nomadic elements in the nature and the stories around us. There are a few references to Santa Claus, who is, in effect, a seasonal traveller. We, as humans, are constantly evolving, changing and moving. Life is often referred to as a journey. We are all on a perpetual journey through the course of which, we learn, grow, hurt, heal, love, regret and seek. Our ‘destination’ varies constantly. Our end goal may not always be the same. Through these travels we make friends, we lose touch with them, we learn from our mistakes and we protect ourselves from the harshness of what surrounds us; and that’s very much akin to the life of a nomad. In a poignant sequence in the film, one man explains that over the course of the evolution of the solar system, stars exploded and as a result, there are minor atomic pieces of stars in all of us dispersed across the earth. Thus, in a sense, aren’t we all just nomads of this vast universe?
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.