by Jordan King
Following 2017’s poetic, docu-fiction hybrid The Rider, which saw real-life cowboy Brady Jandreay and his family star in a dramatisation of his own experiences following a near fatal head injury, director Chloé Zhao returns this year with Nomadland, another profound meditation on American life depicted through the unique lens of the ordinary folk who have lived it.
Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, which told the story of the late 2000s’ Great Recession through the experiences of the ageing men and women whose financial safety and security disappeared before their very eyes, Zhao’s film sees a transformative Frances McDormand star as Fern. Widowed, out of steady work, reluctant to leave her hometown of Empire, Nevada (which soon after the recession vanished off the map entirely) but unable to stay, Fern finds herself packing up her worldly belongings into a small, white cargo van and setting out on a new path in life as a nomad.
Following some paying work with Amazon, where she is befriended by the kindly Dave (David Strathairn) and some of the actual nomads from Bruder’s novel, Fern suddenly finds her once settled and secure way of living giving way to a new freeloading, “follow any which way the road takes me” philosophy. As Fern makes her way across the American Midwest in a series of lullabically loose vignettes, she magpies wisdom from the Nomadic clan, partaking in their fireside singing and thrift-seeking rituals, listening intently as they talk of their lost dreams and new fears, their mortal pangs and undimming light gleamed from a life fully lived.
Not only is Nomadland a masterful synthesis of the blurred line where reality and fiction meets, the sort of film where an Oscar-winning actress and a group of ordinary women and men who lost it all back in ‘09 are brought to an even keel before the camera’s levelling eye, but it is also technically a sheer marvel. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is stunning, finding the exact light and vantage points to observe the rugged beauty of the great American outdoors as it presents itself amidst the daily grift and grind, whilst the superlative Ludovico Einaudi contributes a score that is truly spellbinding. Beautiful strings and piano pieces extend outwards Zhao’s inquiry into the collective consciousness of the nomadic community; the beauty and mystery of the orchestral accompaniment to Fern’s journey is art imitating life, and serves as a poignant reminder that the stunning fact of our simply existing interfaces constantly with the oftentimes harsh reality that that very existence, especially in a post-Recession climate, is under constant threat and interrogation.
Amidst all of this dialogic excavation and cinematic splendour, as thousands of miles are journeyed both within and without Fern, we witness something of a quiet revolution occur within Zhao’s fearless leading lady. In her effortless ability to make friends and her endearing combination of almost childlike inquisition and a quiet, observational demeanour the likes of which you only come across in those who have lived long enough to notice alike feelings and experiences in new encounters, Fern appears to be living up to her early assertion in the film that she prefers to be titled “houseless” and not “homeless”. Fern’s grief, her heart full of love and kindness, and her head full of memories of better days and thoughts of reunions waiting someplace down the road spur her onwards, proving the simple truth of one of the oldest adages in the world – home is where the heart is.
Nomadland is a paean to those who through circumstance or choice live daily out of gratitude for better days and in hope of better days yet to come. In a time where the world is growing ever more isolating and harder to divine inspiration from, Zhao’s latest film marries the beauty of the cinematic form with the oft-forgotten but never gone beauty of the human spirit to create a soothing tonic for troubled times. There’s no great revelation, no third act moment of epiphany, but rather a measured, constant flow of reminders that whether the road is rough or smooth ahead, we’re all always on our way.
Nomadland screened as part of BFI London Film Festival
It is out 1st January