How do you review a film that is a review of life itself? Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland mimics life scrupulously. In its rhythms and beats, in the people and relationships that it deals with. It then goes further; makes you face up to the fundamental truths of existence.
Among the myriad realities that Nomadland engages with, a most deep-seated one is that of loss. Professional and material catastrophes and personal bereavements; places left behind, people bid farewell to and objects mislayed, forsaken or broken and disposed of; Nomadland is a pensive, unhurried journey to intense dispossession and also an arrival into quietude, peace and healing. One which is volitional as much as it is enforced, as profoundly liberating as it is a deeply sad reflection on the shattered American Dream of many.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a resident of Empire, Nevada, who decides to leave her hometown when her husband dies and the US Gypsum plant—the sole provider of employment—shuts down. She packs away the few possessions in a storage unit, carries others she holds dear, becomes houseless and wanders around America in her new home—a van. From Badlands National Park to Wall Drug restaurant in South Dakota to the neat home of Fern’s sister in California, Nomandland makes its protagonist, and the viewers, travel around America.
The most significant aspect of the journey is getting to meet some real-life nomads—Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Based on “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty First Century” by Jessica Bruder, the film offers us a peep into life of those for whom “home” is “something you carry within yourself”. Through them we get introduced to a way of life which is about living by seasonal gigs and dropping anchor wherever you get to work for the given duration. It is about having almost no belongings and, in turn, not belonging to anyone or any place. It’s about meeting new people but eventually also parting ways. It’s about anchoring yourself by letting go. It’s about never saying the final goodbye but promising to meet each other again down the road. It is about believing in the power of one, right down to “taking care of your own shit”. From a higher plane, isn’t that what life is, or should be, all about?
Zhao frames the quest against the backdrop of sprawling nature, tiny humans and a vast landscape of earth, water and sky with a haunting soundtrack that speaks as much as the resonant stillness dexterously woven into the narrative. Zhao doesn’t rush from one scene to the next, pauses to hold on to a moment, a thought, a feeling.
There is a scene in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh, in which Anupam Kher, as the elderly protagonist B.V. Pradhan, tells his wife Parvati (Rohini Hattangadi): “Tumhare chehre ki jhurriyon mein mere jeevan ka saaransh hai (The gist of my life is encapsulated in the wrinkles on your face).” The soul of Nomadland reflects in the very stoic being of Francis McDormand. Unassuming yet sure of herself, broken and grieving yet carrying on bravely, having the courage to chart a different course from the socially acceptable, collecting herself together even when at the most vulnerable and close to falling apart.
Nomadland is the kind of film in which you find your own experiences staring back at you. Life in the past one year of the pandemic has been about a sense of diminishment at so many levels. Nomadland helped me square up to it. The limited human interaction and the renegotiated daily patterns; spending days, weeks, months and minutest of moments in your own company, seeing your own face in the mirror day in and out. Hadn’t some of us become nomads ourselves, unmoored in our own homes?
I could put myself in Fern’s shoes and feel like the speck of dust lost in the unquantifiable enormity of the universe. At a more banal level I could feel the cruel, unfair blow of redundancy heaped on us by the inhuman human resources departments, I could feel the urge to break away and start all over again in a world in which I knew no one and no one knew me. I could feel the urgency to relocate and re-evaluate goals while holding on to my own voice and reclaiming my space.
For me Nomadland has been cinema at its most cathartic; it’s a therapist I should have but never did visit. In taking me on a ride through loss, Nomadland helped me home in on myself. In the words of the film itself, it helped me see myself again down the road. A film to hold on to and cherish forever.