The absurdity of the world in which we live is that, despite having more resources and more wealth than ever before, the gap between those who possess it and those that don't has only gotten wider. In major western countries - countries where this shouldn't be the case - there are hundreds of thousands of people displaced, homeless, jobless and living from day to day with no idea where they can even rest their head at night. The United States of America is perhaps the perfect example of this: a country of such absurd wealth, such absurd opportunity, but all of it geared towards the privileged, who use it to their own advantage and take it for granted.
In the second act of Chloé Zhao's remarkable third feature film 'Nomadland', the sister of our protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand, 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri') says that Fern is part of a great American tradition, of people crossing the North American continent in covered wagons in search of a new beginning. After tragically losing her job and her husband when their town was shut down in 2011, Fern has resorted to living in a van, moving across country between temporary jobs, and fashioning her vehicle as her home. She is an American nomad, part of a vast movement of nomads, with no fixed address except the open road, a life balanced between uncertainty and possibility, vulnerability and strength, devastation and joy, fragility and resilience. 'Nomadland' follows Fern as she travels across the American West, meeting new friends, making new connections, saying goodbye to old ones, searching for meaning in the vastness of the land and the sky and the sea, searching for a way to calm the aching pain within her.
This is fertile, rich territory for a filmmaker as generous, sensitive, astute and humane as Chloé Zhao, whose second film 'The Rider' (2017) is one of the finest works of American cinema from the last decade. Part of Zhao's practice as a filmmaker is to draw from the real world rather than imposing artifice, inhabiting the liminal space between documentary and narrative film. With 'Nomadland', she leans slightly more towards the latter, but only slightly. While Fern is a construct - a pair of eyes and a soul through which we can feel the lives of the nomads - almost everyone Fern encounters is a real member of this vast community, people who have committed their lives to their vans and to the open road. 'Nomadland' is a magnificent, deeply moving tapestry of life, love and loss, all of it shimmering with the indescribable power of truth. Zhao's gift as a director is to be there as a witness to life itself, using the language of cinema to document what she sees. Her eye is never invasive but it is astute; she knows how to win the trust of the world she is entering and how best to capture it in the most respectful way she can.
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And the world she captures in 'Nomadland' is one of unexpected joy. Many of the people Fern encounters - and certainly Fern herself - carry great pain and loss. They may have had their lives stripped away from them, or they may simply have walked out the door and jumped in the car to search for answers or meaning or something new, but not one of them takes their new life for granted. The moments where these people, and in particular the women of 'Nomadland', speak to their loss are heartbreaking, but all the more so for the more numerous moments of celebration - at finding a new way to be and at finding each other in the desert. They carry the impossible weight of existence in the 21st century on their shoulders, but they carry it willingly, knowingly, accepting their burden and seeking to find peace with it in the quiet solitude of the natural world. In a way, much like Zhao is witness to them, they are witness to us, looking on at our chaos from their place of sanctuary.
No filmmaker is worth an ounce of their talent without their collaborators, but in the case of Chloé Zhao's work, her collaborators become all the more vital to the success of her films. They aren't simply wheels in a cog but participants in her pursuit, subscribers to her artistic thesis. With 'The Rider' and 'God's Own Country', cinematographer Joshua James Richards proved himself a talent to watch, and in many ways 'Nomadland' is an even greater achievement. He and his camera are in perfect sync with Zhao's gentle humanist approach, knowing where to look to capture small moments of magic, how to work with the light and texture of the natural world to create something singular and extraordinary, and how best to step into a new world as a guest and emerge as family. Zhao and Richards are very much extensions of one another in this film, collaborating with a keen confidence born out of a mutual appreciation of the power of the camera to capture the intricate complexity of being alive. That collaboration then comes full circle with Zhao being editor as well as director, taking what she observes in the natural rhythms of the shooting and in Richards' cinematography and replicating it in the rhythm of the final film. Many directors use the passage of time as a storytelling tool, but time in 'Nomadland' moves with a quiet desperation, a delicate sense of longing, a need to search and find. Despite its deliberate, often dreamlike pace, 'Nomadland' is at no point a sedentary film.
Zhao's other great collaborator on this film is the face of the film itself; the woman at its centre. It should come as no surprise that Frances McDormand is absolutely extraordinary in 'Nomadland'; she is, after all, one of the finest American actors of all time. What hits you right in the chest with this performance is how quiet, how still, how open and how devastating it is. Fern has suffered more than a human being should have to endure, and yet she keeps her eyes fixed to the horizon, open to what the road will lead her to. She is a woman who wants to live, not be drowned by her past. Her will to survive is both beautiful and heartbreaking - beautiful when bounding around the American badlands amongst endless freedom, devastating when that freedom is sucked away in the artificial capitalist hell of an Amazon distribution centre or a grill kitchen. One could maybe argue that the conceit of 'Nomadland' would have been strengthened by having its lead be a member of the community telling their own story, but McDormand becomes a member of that community, and her role in the film moves between protagonist and witness, much like Zhao. McDormand is at her most sublime sitting and listening to the stories of others, reacting with genuine awe and sincerity.
'Nomadland' is a magnificent, deeply moving tapestry of life, love and loss, all of it shimmering with the indescribable power of truth.
With one exception, the rest of the nomads are non-actors, but the comfort and openness created by Zhao and McDormand makes their performances so deeply, deeply affecting. In particular, you're blown away by the women Fern meets, Linda May and Swankie, women who have faced loss and mortality and heartache in the face and yet survive, protect what they have, celebrate it, and submit themselves to the beautiful, liminal tide of existence. There isn't an ounce of self-consciousness to their performances, and their embrace of McDormand is as genuine and wholehearted as their embrace of the nomad lifestyle. This isn't an abstract concept to them - this is their life, and the stories they tell and the dreams they share are born, vivid and powerful, from those lives. To have these stories and dreams shared with us is a tremendous gift, and it's a gift neither McDormand nor Zhao nor we the audience take for granted.
The verisimilitude of 'Nomadland' is so potent that any attempt at artifice sticks out, and unfortunately, the manufactured narrative thread of a potential love interest in Dave (David Strathairn, 'Good Night, and Good Luck') does just that. Strathairn is also an extraordinary actor, and he certainly demonstrates the same necessary qualities of listening and responding that McDormand does, but his arc - particularly in the final act - just feel a touch too contrived to be successful. It does offer Fern a window back into the real world, and this feels necessary, but the spontaneity of the rest of the film is missing here. It's a small misstep though, with Zhao bringing the film home with a thunderous final sequence that feels achingly intimate and absolutely eternal all at once.
It says so much that these nomads, who have chosen to commit to this life of freedom, do so with so little. While those who have stripped them of their livelihoods carelessly enjoy the horrors of excess, a single plate or a tyre full of air become objects to treasure. The purpose of life is not in what we physically possess but what we possess in our hearts, the people we see and the sights we see. The indescribable magic of Chloé Zhao's work is that it speaks both to the pain and the glory of being alive, not in some imagined way but in its actuality. 'Nomadland' is an extraordinary film from an extraordinary artist with extraordinary stories to tell, and you can't help but feel that same call of the open road and the vastness of the sky, to leave the chaos and confusion of the modern world behind and be one with the world, both the one around us and the world within us. Being alive can break your heart, but my god, it can also be so beautiful.