Nomadland movie review: Chloé Zhao's sanitised portrait of forgotten wanderers on the American frontier

Chloe Zhao's vision of life on the road in Nomadland is rooted in American traditions,

Prahlad Srihari April 02, 2021 08:31:30 IST

3/5

Language: English

The blood of the nomad runs through America's veins. The country’s first inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers who migrated from Asia some thousands of years ago. They passed down the wanderlust gene to all the migrants who came to America. The travelling preachers, the cowboys, the 49-ers, every literary nomad from Henry Miller to Hunter S Thompson, and every movie nomad from The Tramp to the Man with No Name to Easy Rider, were all born from the same restless tradition. Chloé Zhao's new film finds a makeshift community with a similar distaste for settling down.

True to tradition, Nomadland is full of shots of a woman in a lone van on an endless road in the vast emptiness populated only by prairies and mountains. It draws on the motif of the lone hero in the American West, the myth of the self-reliant individualist. Don't forget it was a cultural trend born out of economic decline. Just as the lone hero had to deal with the end of the frontier, the nomads of Nomadland have to deal with the rise of neoliberalism.

Nomadland movie review Chlo Zhaos sanitised portrait of forgotten wanderers on the American frontier

Still from Nomadland

One of these nomads is Fern (Frances McDormand), a 61-year-old woman discarded by the system. She was once a wife, a home-owner, and an employee of Corporate America in a Nevada mining town. Then, the Great Recession came and went, and took everything she had with it. She lost her husband, her home, and her job. The town was wiped off the map. So, Fern took to the road, like thousands of other dispossessed Americans. Zhao uses her journey to examine other stories of loneliness, remorse and acceptance within the nomadic subculture that Jessica Bruder documented in her book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.

Nomadland movie review Chlo Zhaos sanitised portrait of forgotten wanderers on the American frontier

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in Nomadland.

Rejecting the term “homeless” and preferring “houseless” instead, these Americans have found peace in forgoing all the debt and pain that comes with owning a home. Living in their vans has given them some economic freedom. They take up seasonal jobs at Amazon fulfilment centres, fast food restaurants and campgrounds to fund their minimalist lifestyle. Their preacher, Bob Wells, describes them as conscientious objectors to “the tyranny of the dollar,” and “work horses thrown out to pasture.” So, they have formed a community of their own on the frontier. Community ensures another nomadic ideal: equality. Think of the earliest nomads who had to travel with limited possessions. Survival depended on sharing and co-existence with others.

Zhao is a reluctant documentarian, preferring a hybrid form of reality and fiction. Embedding herself in the Native American community, she told two authentic stories in her first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. The marginalised experiences of the community members, who played versions of themselves, heavily informed the narrative. Collaborating with the community, Zhao was portraying, imbued some degree of authenticity. But Nomadland isn’t centred around Bob Wells, or Linda May, like Bruder does in her book. Thus, building on Bruder’s journalistic framework to craft a work of fiction can only be described as faux-authentic.

Nomadland movie review Chlo Zhaos sanitised portrait of forgotten wanderers on the American frontier

Still from Nomadland

For the story of the fictional Fern downgrades the stories of the real-life nomads to secondary status. A documentary would have given them the platform to tell their stories and their stories alone. Zhao's authorial intent might not have been as intrusive. In this docu-fiction form, however, there's a distance between Zhao's vision and her subject. In Songs My Brothers Taught Me, we get a sense of the inner lives of siblings John Reddy and Jashaun St. John. The same holds true for rodeo star Brady Jandreau in The Rider. In Nomadland, Zhao can only help us understand the nomads' daily realities. Nothing more.

Even in its depiction of their daily lives, the gears of Nomadland are frustratingly stuck in neutral. Fern and co are trapped in a cycle, bound to work multiple back-breaking, low-paying jobs each year. Worst of all, they have to work for Amazon. One of its “Lets make Jeff Bezos richer” schemes include the CamperForce program, which hires the nomadic proletariat to operate its warehouses during peak seasons. Most of these “workampers” are senior citizens who were contemplating retirement before they lost their jobs and homes. They don't all have a fail-safe option if they need money for van repairs, like Fern does in her sister. Adopting the RV lifestyle was out of desperation as the stranglehold of poverty tightened. For Amazon, that means they're easy to hire, exploit and discard.

Nomadland movie review Chlo Zhaos sanitised portrait of forgotten wanderers on the American frontier

Frances McDormand (L) in Nomadland

Zhao doesn’t romanticise, as much as sanitise, the brutal realities of a gig economy. She does briefly consider a romance arc for Fern, giving her a love interest in fellow nomad David (played by David Strathairn). Ultimately, and wisely, she holds back so as to not compromise Fern's nomadic spirit for a conventional narrative. Letting Ludovico Einaudi on the piano doesn't help though. His music can feel like a beam of light extending from the dark clouds on most occasions. Here, it distracts by calling too much attention to itself.

DoP Joshua James Richards does the opposite. The landscape photography is never showy, more a reflection of Fern's inner contours. He finds an intimacy even in scenes set against a boundless vista. The handheld-Steadicam combo immerses us in this swelling community. The camera pulls in and pauses on their faces as they reflect on their pain. The transition from scene to scene is paced with a gentle fluidity that evokes its characters' lives on the move.

Living the nomad life is a choice for some, the only option for others. Staring at the same set of four walls will give anyone the travel bug. But Zhao suggests it's something more for Americans: it’s a tradition that defines their very cultural identity. Fern's sister compares the nomads to the pioneers, calling them a “part of the American tradition.” Nomadland is part of another: poverty porn as high art.

Nomadland is now running in cinemas across India.

Rating: ***

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