Nomadland: For Those Looking Out Their Windows
Updated: May 26
Where do we go from here? Some people won’t be returning to the normal we knew before COVID locked us up like zoo animals. We always have the urge to drop everything and depart but 2020 has extrapolated our tendency to look out the window and contemplate the grand “out there” and its soul-redeeming power. It’s always out there. That is where freedom is truly free. We can only ever be truly alive when we just go.
Chloe Zhao, the sensitive filmmaker behind indie gems Songs My Brothers Taught Me (No matter how much the wind blows, the dust of home never fully leaves your fingers) and The Rider (What is the purpose of a cowboy if he can no longer ride?) has created another moving, empathetic film about hitting the road, unable to escape yourself and the past but perpetually moving because American society enables it. America, as great as it is, has taken a few too many wrong routes and Nomadland captures the essence of this in a wonderfully balanced way. It’s not too glamorous about the idea of running away nor too critical of the reason for running away. Though some criticism is warranted and while leaving our lives as we know them may seem like a dream right now, Zhao’s film simply puts the focus on the experience, the act of the nomad in an elegant, touching manner. It deftly juggles its emotional, melancholy ruminations with hopeful, inspirational messages. Like her other two films, it’s beautifully shot, capturing the American Midwest like so few contemporary filmmakers do. The connections to Malick are inevitable; gliding, reflective camerawork along with some stunning static shots. But Zhao is her own talent, only she could make Nomadland.
Frances McDormand (born to play this role and first professional actor of Zhao’s filmography) is Fern, a widow in her 60s choosing the peripatetic lifestyle in 2011 after her hometown of Empire, Nevada ceases to exist due to the recession (like I said, there could be another wave of refugees from society during our own current crises, especially among indignant millennials). What follows is a meditative, docu-style road film about people and the hardships of life. Fern finds work (an Amazon factory at one point), stays with a real life group of nomads called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), and drives her ratty van around Nevada, South Dakota, California, and other parts of the midwest.
There’s no grand moment but rather small doses of bittersweet gestures that keep the film engaging. Even with no plot or conflict, it’s easy to watch Fern drive along, alone and wistful. Even the potential for a new romance doesn’t tie her down, she moves on because, as her dad once told her, “what’s remembered lives” and she’s “spent a lot of my life remembering.” She’d rather be alone and reminiscent. She’s never been satisfied with walls and a ceiling, the quasi-primitive way of life has always been chirping at her like a bird on a tree limb near the window. While this may be a character study, it’s not all about Fern. In fact, she’s a big part of the film’s restraint. She doesn’t talk much and she’s easy to get along with because she listens. In one telling scene that moved me to tears, Swankie (a non-professional actor), a friend of Fern’s, gives a monologue about facing her own mortality. She talks about the things she’s seen: a moose family, pelicans, and swallow nests while kayaking in a river. The egg hatches fell next to her and the swallows “reflected in the water over and under and all around.” She would’ve been fine dying right there. The beautiful simplicity. That’s all it takes. We’re too busy slaving away with our excel sheets and financial obligations and the demands of corporate America and God knows what else when all it takes is to watch birds fly. Look at the stars, dance in the waves, and talk to people. Even now as I type this, I’m sitting in an outdoor area of a coffee shop in New York City, which is neat, but it’s loud and it stinks. What the hell am I doing here? Just leave, just go. Find some fresh air, the American West is calling. I know, it’s not that easy, and the film makes this clear but the point is, there is so much pleasure and joy in life so many of us miss out on only because we stay put, we talk, and we don’t look.
Zhao’s camera has loved people from the start, and Nomadland is no exception. The kindness and empathy for the people Fern meets along the way is robust. Fern isn’t the only one struggling and that’s a good reminder for any viewer watching today. Set to a wondrous, captivating score by Ludivico Einaudi, Fern meanders along and in another wonderful scene, chats with a young vagabond dressed like he lives in the 19th century. He talks about writing letters to a girl back home and what follows, by Fern, is the best recitation of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen in film (and yes, I’ve seen Orson Welles’ literal Shakespeare adaptations).
Nomadland does have a lot to say, but its main purpose is the experience. A true existence. The pleasures of people’s company. The ecstasy of hands on the steering wheel, mountains, sea, canyons, cacti, or a fishing stream approaching the car window. Watching the sunset on the tailgate, waiting for Jupiter and Saturn to hit their marks on the night sky stage. It seems only nature can untie the knot in our stomachs, even if it's just for a moment.
Not to rag on cities too much, but there is a spirituality in the midwest that cannot be found in the chaos and cynicism of urban sprawl. Where else can you see a church marquee spouting such truth as “Sorrow looks back, worry looks around, and faith looks up” (spotted in Oklahoma)? In a world where it seems loneliness, identity crises, and mere apathy to living a decent, meaningful life increases more and more everyday, it’s nice to have movies like Nomadland remind us that it is possible, that there is an alternative to all of this, that you can both endure and bloom. You may just have to depart (doesn’t have to be physically of course), leave behind what’s holding you back. Move on. Ironically for me, it seems the only thing keeping me from departing is the inability to catch beautiful films like this while I roam. Nomadland is truly the film of the year. The leader of the RTR mentions that there is never a final goodbye, it’s always “see you down the road.” It’s true, he says, he invariably sees them again, whether it's weeks, months or years. It’s true for ourselves too, drive on down the road and eventually you’ll see yourself again.
Nomadland won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and screened at the New York Film Festival. It will be released in theaters December 4th.