Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book on vandwellers in the US, Nomadland is, at first, a bleak landscape of white, mournful snow as Fern (Frances McDormand) loses her husband and job at the US Gypsum plant as the 2011 economic recession comes uprooting livelihoods, lives, and towns in its wake. In one fell sweep, she’s lost all she’d accumulated so far, all the material possessions that, in their familiarity, breed security. It’s a funny thing about how we construct our physical and emotional cocoons around the things we possess. It’s a deep, stirring construct that transcends the cold business transaction behind it all. We pay for our houses, fill them up with things we need and more often, with what we don’t. We construct our memories and nostalgic albums around these physical paraphernalia. And when we lose our loved ones and our loved possessions, that sense of security is upended, as we’re sucked into the tornado of helplessness and directionlessness. Where and how we land is incumbent upon what we do when we’re up there in the ruthless spin-and-tumble of uncertainty, no bearings or support to guide us any longer.
Fern lands as hard as anyone would. All she knows is Empire, Nevada, is no longer economically viable, and what guides her is the compass of the next meal and of survival. Stashing away those physical belongings, including her late husband’s clothes in a storage unit, selling most those emotional-security bonds off which she buys a van, she heads off, a travel that’s one of self-discovery and for us, an eye-opening treatise on the concept of homelessness and the accompaniment heartbreak and hope. Writer-director Chloé Zhao creates a ruminating docu-style drama as Fern enters the world of vandwellers. It’s a world inhabited by run-down folks who’ve lost all the sheen that life once had to offer and are now covered with the scrag and dust of the road that’s both a lifeline and an unending tarmac of struggle and self-reliant living. Using real-life dwellers as the cast (including Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells) to color the initial snowed-in canvas, director Zhao shifts to warmer climes and tones, even as the hand-held camera work offers hand-holding hope in the kinetic lives of itinerants, a world where everyone retires into their own van-homes at night, retiring after slogging away as temps and contributing to the cycle of economic recovery. And there’s the bitter irony. Cogs in the capitalist machine, Zhao’s houseless (not homeless) get by, as they build those emotional blankets for others, every online click-to-order an emotional catharsis for all of us who stress-shop to distract ourselves.
And yet amidst it all, Nomadland offers fire-camp sparks of hope. There’s a community out there, a well-knit family that’s made pretty much the same choices off a list of hopeless ones. Where do you spend your next tranche of money? The mortgage or fuel for your van? Your insurance or the next supply of canned food? And Frances McDormand channelizes all these questions, their uneasy answers, and the grit and grind of such a life across her face. Her mouth can set to a firm fight, droop just that bit, the lines that she can move with a twitch or cast in tragic despair. Her Fern is on an expedition self-discovery and affirmation, one that she probably began much before her current world unravelled. Of what she wants from life and what she wants to get from it. Does she settle into another willow of security that fellow-vandweller Dave (a fantastic as usual David Strathairn) offers so tantalizingly? A glimpse that she gets into what life could be again. Familiarity, as she knows by now, is a seductive and heartbreaking devil.
Fern’s journey is almost spiritual at one level, that of self-discovery, and director Zhao stirs you with her take along with Ludovico Einaudi’s solo, poignant piano pieces. And as all transcendent roads go, her path involves deterging as she embarks on this peripatetic venture that’s as much physical as it is of the soul. At various stages in the movie, McDormand bravely goes through three allegorical stages of cleansing onscreen. She urinates the first time, in a furtive, embarrassed way, by the road, having just begun her travels, anxious and uncertain of what and who lie ahead. Later, inside the van, she takes a dump, cringing the next moment at what’s been stewing inside her. And finally, stark naked, much like an enlightened and lightened spirit, takes a dip in clean, flowing water. She knows what it costs to be bound down by emotional plugs and holes, and material matter. She’s also calculated the price of being alone.
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Nomadland is streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar and rated A (For adults only) for moderate profanity and a scene with frontal nudity.
Director Dileesh Pothan Time 1h 53min
Writers Chloé Zhao, Jessica Bruder (based on the book by)
Stars Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells