Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” seems to be a Rorschach test for viewers. How people feel after watching it, and how they describe its “message” seems to say a lot about them and how they view “the American experience.”
I personally found the movie to be mesmerizing, authentic and transformative. It’s hands down the best film I’ve seen in years. But, again, that might say more about me than it expresses the intent of director Zhao, who adapted Jessica Bruder’s novel.
The indie drama centers on Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow, who after her husband dies and her small Nevada town’s zip code is removed — it relied heavily on the gypsum industry, so when that dried up, so did the town — she puts her things into storage and moves into a van. Depending on seasonal work to survive, she ventures from Nevada to the Badlands, encountering a variety of people along the way, and engaging in work that runs the gamut, including fulfilling orders in an Amazon warehouse, cooking and serving food at Wall Drug, cleaning up after people in a campground, selling precious rocks and gems at a roadside stand, and shoveling and sorting beets during a Nebraska festival. It’s not a glamorous life, and it’s definitely not for everyone — she has no heat, must use a bucket for her personal waste, and has difficulty finding a place to park for the night — but she’s “free” and lives on her own terms.
The film was made for between $4 million and $6 million, the reason being that it has just two recognizable actors: McDormand and, in a supporting role, David Strathairn. With a few exceptions, the other characters are played by real-life nomads. This lends the film a documentary feel. I imagine most of the budget went for travel expenses, because it was filmed on location at, sometimes, picturesque sites. It offers slices of the “true” heart of America.
Back to the Rorschach test. If you believe strongly, as some characters do, that life means being surrounded by family, living in a house, working a 9-to-5, saving for retirement, having your life planned and secure, then you will probably look at Fern as a tragic figure. After all, she left home early, moved with her husband to live in a town he loved, she accepted; worked a regular job … she accumulated possessions — the set of dishes that her late father collected and gave to her are of particular significance — and then her husband got sick and died; everything collapsed. Now in her 60s, she finds herself spouseless, child-free, homeless, and jobless; no retirement “nest egg” that we can see. Seems an indictment of the American system. But if you don’t buy into that, you will see that she is able to “ascend” to another level of being.
I teach religion, so I’m coming at this from a different perspective. In Hinduism, people traverse life through “stages.” You begin as a student, become a householder, during which time you get married, have children, work, and build your foundation; then when you are around retirement age, you begin the forest-dweller stage. At this point, your children have families of their own, you are beginning to detach yourself from the material world, and you do this, essentially, by living part of your time in the forest. For me, I saw Fern as someone hovering between the forest dweller and sannyasin stages. What is a sannyasin? Well, it’s a person who has completely unmoored themselves from materialism. No job, no possessions, no attachment … just getting ready for death.
In the west, we might, see this as morbid, but it’s actually preparing you for the inevitable; for what comes next. No one escapes this fate. And, the benefit is when you die, you don’t leave behind a lot of junk that family must sort through and, then, mostly, donate and throw away. You are no longer worrying about how you look in a mirror; you aren’t bothered by office politics or family squabbles. You are becoming “free.” Free from societal constraints and expectations.
In Buddhism, the things that tether us to rebirth (samsara) are ignorance, anger, and “attachment.” Ignorance, here, is not that I don’t have enough book knowledge; it’s failing to recognize that the only thing constant is change. All the things we put stock in — our homes, things, relationships, even our identities — fall away as we get older. Fern has already lost the most significant person in her life — her husband — and we still see her struggling to forget him and move on. (She still wears her wedding ring and is “tethered” so to speak.) The people she meets along the way, most are retirement age. Many have suffered trauma — a Vietnam vet suffers from PTSD and cannot cope with loud sounds (fireworks) or people, so he lives in the quiet; many have battled life destroying illnesses, such as cancer.
One of the most touching, albeit brief, relationships Fern has is with Swankie, a gruff woman who is terminal. All she wants to do is go back to Alaska, where, we assume, she will eventually take her own life. (She is savvy about the Kervorkian way out.) Her fondest memory isn’t about being in her home, surrounded by her things and family. She tells about a time when she was in a kayak and came upon a community of swallows that soared above and around her; chicks burst out of eggs that fell into the water. It’s a transcendent moment of joy in nature, and she longs to recreate this. These friendships and experiences are ephemeral. They have meaning but they don’t last. Just as nothing really does. And Fern is learning, and accepting this, throughout the movie.
Fern’s own identity is in flux. Who is she? She used to live in a house with a backyard that looked out to mountains in the distance. At the end of the film, she returns to find her house empty; there isn’t any evidence that it once was filled with objects, was warmed by a furnace, and smelled of cooked food. It’s an empty vessel. That life and that version of Fern is finished. She is now a woman who lives in a van; she’s a nomad. And even when she’s tempted to give up that life — on several occasions — she rejects the offers. I imagine that if we could see Fern in 10 years, she would be yet someone else again. Buddhism tells us that we aren’t a fixed and permanent “us”; that “I” is an illusion. We are no more the same person from when we were 5 years old to who we are at 65 years, just as we are never the same person from one moment to the next. Fern seems to be learning that, and rather than go back and seek the comfort of “illusion,” she forges, boldly, into the next moment.
Early in the film, Fern is offered a companion — a dog that was abandoned by unfortunate circumstances — and I had hoped she would take him into her van. But she doesn’t. At one point, she has an opportunity to find romance, which worried me, but this isn’t that film. And despite the fact that we might want things like permanent companionship for her, this is her journey, and it’s her truth. Zhao is like the Buddha, telling us how things are; not how we want it to be. She refuses to capitulate and give us the film we might think we want to see. And I truly appreciate that.
I’m not going to lie. Nomadland is an honest, beautiful film that leaves you bathed in tears. Halfway through, tears were streaming down my face, and I wasn’t even sure why by that point. It’s cathartic for those who will let it in. To encapsulate the experience, I would say it’s a bit like what you would get if you put Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1996 book Nickel and Dimed in a blender with the 2009 George Clooney vehicle Up in the Air and Jack Kerouac’s 1958 Dharma Bums. Not that this film is derivative in the slightest. It very much has its own voice and spirit. My thanks to McDormand, who is absolutely amazing — so honest, humble, and brave — here, and to Zhao, whose next film is Marvel’s monster budgeted The Eternals. I feel privileged to have spent 90 minutes taking this journey; I think it’s an important and much needed experience for us to have.
Nomadland gets a rare five out of five stars. It is airing now on Hulu.