Tom Crowley pack his bags
‘Home, is it just a word? Or something you carry within you?’ is a philosophical musing from Morrissey, taken from the bridge of his 2017 song ‘Home is a Question Mark’. Now, this question and the title of the song may seem a little rich for most people who have lived through 2020 and will say that they know exactly what a home is, thank you very much. However, this is the central question to Chloé Zhao’s new film Nomadland, about a widow, Fern, played by Frances McDormand, who falls into America’s nomadic retiree subculture after the death of her husband and the loss of her job. She packs up in her humble campervan and hits the road taking seasonal jobs where she can.
Nomadland is a film about finding a sense of belonging and sense of purpose outside the conventional ways for living. There is a telling scene when the nomadic Fern returns briefly to her sister’s house and finds herself in conversation with two real estate agents, ‘It’s strange’ she says ‘that you encourage people to invest their whole life savings, go into debt, just to buy a house they can’t afford’. Nomadland’s raison d’etre is two-fold. It is also a commentary on the 2008 economic crash which left millions of Americans in critical financial hardship. It is one of the best films so far about the impact of the recession because of the human angle it takes- Margin Call (2011), 99 Homes (2014) and The Big Short (2015) are all good films in their own right but seem a little didactic in comparison.
Chloe Zhao continues her cinema verite style from her second feature The Rider (2017). The characters Fern meets on her endless journey are played by real members of the nomadic community. Some are life-long nomads, who have chosen a life of nature and solitude, others, like Fern herself, forced into it by a relentlessly callous capitalist system. Fern is a woman getting on in age, but still has the wondrous eyes of a child. It is a fantastic performance from McDormand, who has displayed so many of them before through her now 35-year strong career, which began by being directed by her husband Joel Coen in the Coen Brothers debut film, the fabulous neo-noir Blood Simple (1984). McDormand is going for a hat-trick of Oscars, after her win for Fargo (1997) and very recently Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). It’s hard to look beyond her this year given the slack number of releases in a year tarnished greatly by Covid-19. However, Carey Mulligan might have something to say about it after an exceptional performance in Promising Young Woman (2020).
In contrast to McDormand, Zhao is at the beginning of her career and has followed-up on the promise of her first two films, the aforementioned The Rider and 2015’s Songs my Brothers Taught Me. All films are steeped in Western mythology and endeavour to bring the spirit of a forgotten America back into cultural consciousness. Her first two films were shot in South Dakota’s Badlands. Nomadland passes through this area but the nature of the film takes shooting through several other states. The film’s cinematography is sumptuous and takes full advantage of the beauty of Fern’s surroundings. To call it Malickian would be a bit reductive but there are similarities. The film is shot by Joshua James Richards who worked with Zhao on her previous two films and also Francis Lee’s brilliant God’s Own Country (2017). He seems to have a knack for getting the most out of the beauty of vast, sparse, natural landscapes.
Nomadland creates a yearning for freedom, whatever that means to you. It is a film that shows you the beauty of the world, but also the beauty within the people that occupy it. Many of these Nomads have lost something. However, the sense of community is never lost. In a divided America, decimated by a pandemic, Nomadland conveys that in times of isolation, togetherness is never too far away.