“I’m not homeless; I’m just houseless,” Frances McDormand’s Fern explains her situation—or more accurately, her way of life to her friend’s daughter amidst Chloé Zhao’s absorbing feature, Nomadland. Her words sound sentimental but never melancholic; and, so does her journey. House is a place, but a home is where the heart is and Fern’s journey is best defined with that. She leaves her old life, hits the road in her versatile van, and lives a nomadic life in the spirit of American West. After all, her journey is a elegiac ode to the beautiful life, pensive memories, and to the sense where people actually belong. When “living” means settling down at one place for the roof, the comfort and the money, it’s utterly absurd to imagine living without the confining space. And yet, for those who chooses to live on the road with no roof to bound just like Fern, “living” becomes a journey, a lifelong lesson captured perfectly in this film.
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Expanding the merits from Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, another docu-dramatic ode to the lost Western, Nomadland digs into the similar method—documenting the life of American’s nomad and interweaving the reality seamlessly into a well-crafted elegy. The story is mournful in a way, but never relishing the melancholy on the way. It starts with a subtext detailing how a lively, industrial town of Empire falls and comes into oblivion with, as the film claims, the zip code discontinued. In the wake of the tragedy, Fern decides to live on the road, strips away everything any urban settler would have had, and continues her life by working in seasonal jobs as in Amazon or campsite. She begins to get to know fellow nomads, mostly boomers and people who cut connections with their past lives, along the way. She listens to their stories, lives their way of life and, at the same time, reflects it all upon her own life.
Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book of the same title, Zhao’s film captures the documentary feeling of it with enough sensitivity to make the subjects speak of themselves. McDormand’s Fern slides in to the documentary with her stories carved in her tired but hopeful face. The contextual doom from 2008 financial crisis still looms around; but, for Fern, it’s the grief over the passing of his husband that gave her the ride to the nomad community. Most of the nomads she meets along the way are non-professional actors; they’re people who actually live on the road and tell their actual stories that they live by, even some of them are prominent nomad figures, including Bob Wells—the van preacher. The only other actor would be David Strathairn (making back-to-back appearances in Legendary’s Godzilla series), who portrays Dave, a perfect occasional companion that Fern befriends during her journey. Zhao’s fastidious writing finds a way to make Fern belongs to such a community. Her stories, while concealed but implied for most of the duration, echo the stories of people who travel with her—people who travel to get away from the past, to make amend with their loss, to make peace with their grief, to look forward to the uncertain future that may come. The parallels are just magnificent.
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McDormand’s subtle yet nuanced performance complements Zhao’s sensitive directing that matches up the cinéma vérité style she’s been applying. There’s not much of dramatization that requires McDormand to erupt into nerve-wracking individual, but there’s this majestic delicacy and precision that exude her internal conflicts. Fern’s not there to judge; she’s there to listen, observe, reflect every story back to her life, and make peace for as long as she can in the dusk of her life. Nomadland’s visual prowess completes the atmosphere of this journey with some kind of lyrical vulnerability. Zhao will take Fern into a long, winding voyage dividing the country and confronts her with the perils and joyful moments. Ludovico Einaudi’s smooth scores come scarcely but timely to cues us to the depth of the elegy. Meanwhile, Joshua James Richards, Zhao’s cinematographer in The Rider (also God’s Own Country), captures the elegiac moment perfectly as he catches Fern against the backdrop of twilight in the horizons, probably symbolizing the proverbial changes in Fern’s twilight age, from the desert to the stark snowstorm.
Nomadland doesn’t actually end; its story continues as the film ends because there’s always people out there on the road, just like Fern, trying to live their lives to the fullest or to, simply, understand the meaning of life itself. For some, it’s the last story they write in their history books as they’re catching up with those who have departed before. For whatever goals, Zhao’s film exudes hope and freedom that feel more meaningful in the moment, especially in this year when most people are confined and lose hope of freedom. In the end, Zhao has brought us the solace in the shape of “home” where the heart really belongs.