United States, 2020
Directed by Chloé Zhao
With Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May (Linda), Charlene Swankie (Swankie)
Three year after “The Rider”, five years after “Songs My Brothers Taught me”, director Chloé Zhao keeps watches folks on the fringe of the American society, communities grappling with challenges and isolation in scenic places, great vistas of the American landscape where the American dream, as advertised by media and the political and economic discourse, looks elusive, even fake, unlike nature and human compassion.
A huge difference in this film, however, is that the community under scrutiny is far more on the move than the others, Native American tribes settled down in harsh but splendid lands, as suggested by the title, and is made up of folks who have chosen to be part of the community – though mainly because the economy has left them with little choice.
They are usually people in their 50s, 60s, and beyond, who have reckoned that they would not get enough money if they go right away in retirement, hard-working, decent women and men who have reduced their way of life to owning, driving, and decorating a recreational vehicle, or just a van, and are always looking for part-time jobs paying enough money to live, or rather to survive. Some, however, have actually chosen to have such a life to enjoy the road, the wild, the life, away from narrow-minded and dull conventions, out of fear they would not live to the full their last years. (Occasionally, they cross path with youngsters wandering on the roads, like the bygone hippies or beatniks, young on the road for adventure, for an alternative life).
The camera is not popped down in the middle of the provisional camp where these people regularly meet during a part of the year. It slowly, smoothly, gets there by tailing Fran, a 62-year old woman who has lost her husband and her town. She has decided to hit the road and to live in a van after the small industrial town of Empire, Nevada, vanished for ever, as the only employer of the place discontinued its mining activities. She parks her van in camps designed to host RV drivers and picks whatever job she can find. At an Amazon warehouse she gets on with another elderly, nomadic lady, Linda; it is through Linda that Fran lands in the community and spends wonderful weeks, before getting on the move again. Linda is the first of the three modern-day, economically poor, but really nice, warm, dignified wanderers Fran learns to know, like, and support: next comes Swankie, a feisty, practical, nature-worshiping old woman living with a cancer, and then there is Dave, a quiet, kind guy who falls in love with the radiant but fiercely independent Fran.
The romance – heavily signaled by the man, assiduously skirted by the woman – injects some pretense of a plot in a story that does not look for one and does not care much about it. This is an up-close, empathetic portrait of a lady, the chronicle of a woman who suffered big hits and still tries to come to terms with the result, on the move and on her own to embrace life again and get over with the cancer-caused, horrible, death of the man she loved so much (and it is not hard to gather she refuses Dave because she would never been able to commit herself again to any other man) and with the disappearance of an entire universe.
One of the most touching moments in “Nomadland” happens indeed when she tours at one point the now ghost town of Empire, an isolated, abandoned, decrepit, dusty, eerily quiet, depressingly void place, roaming across the streets, the factory, and back home, sad and on the brink of tears, long minutes fully, powerfully, illustrating what the loss of location and routine means, and above all what the consequences of economic modernity can look like on the ground. The film bears witness to the disruption and disorder brought upon by the stunning mix over the two or three past decades of an even wider, and more ruthless, industrial world competition, the growing influence of financial calculations and investments, the advent of computer-based technologies and practices, and the fast-changing patterns of consumption and lifestyle. The 2008 big financial crisis has simply fueled the troubles more strongly – the film takes place in the wake of this crisis.
But this film gets also as focused on, entranced by, absorbed by the road and the surrounding nature as the restless driver. Fran’s moments of socialization and those when she looks after herself and performs the menial tasks of living (taking a bath in a river, fixing something on her van, just sitting around, or eating) are pictured inside gorgeously scenic landscapes, awesome places of the American West. The film is filled with amazing shots of the sky, the rocks, and the wild, setting the struggles of Fran, and others, into the wider cosmos. The striking quality of the cinematography, the flair for capturing the atmosphere, the colors and the majesty of nature, turns the film and its unassuming story into a grandiose cinematic experience, which owes a lot to filmmakers like Terence Malick (topically and visually the film can bring to mind, to an extent, “Days of Heaven” ).
That underlines Fran’s adventure is the effort to connect again to life and cosmos, to get another, soothing, and comforting view on the world owning nothing to a harsh, disappointing society. At the end of the film, the effort eventually allows her to put her deep grief behind her. Fran is a solid, fascinating, compelling character who right away captures the attention and commands respect – and the wonderful performance of actress Frances McDormand helps a lot to get the audience charmed and glued to the screen. Still, and especially as she keeps driving the road despite everything at the end, she may come across as stubborn, too strong-minded, distant (certainly to those who think a love story with Dave should be the natural outcome), but the film has constantly emphasized how fragile, ordinary she is, and has never glossed over the very concrete difficulties and challenges her nomadic, solitary, risky life entails.
The woman who runs away is in fact a woman fully aware of what she is doing but does not want to get back, does not want to hesitate, but does want to enjoy life on her own terms, after striving to define them, that is all – this is not so far what the titular rider of Zhao’s previous film experienced. The director proves as observational, tactful, caring as ever. She puts the spotlight on a painful, disquieting problem, the failure of people who have worked throughout their lives to get a fair share of the prosperity, the need to become a nomad again to survive and assert one’s identity, a rather sorely ironic twist to the long human history, which has been defined by a constant retreat of nomadism in the face of the growth of settlements and cities. Her social road movie celebrates a quest for dignity that is deeply moving and essential to affirm. Zhao is clearly developing a visual style that is increasingly and incredibly lyrical, even though it is far grander than what the painstaking realism of her observation and the unassuming nature of the characters and their personal stories call for. It can be readily noted that the film avoids any strong political statements and that Fran’s story never strays from the reliable and relatable parameters of a melodrama based on a grief-stricken personality looking for an awakening. But to many it would probably be tough to forget Fran’s valor, resilience, and grace.