' ' Cinema Romantico: Nomadland

Tuesday, April 20, 2021


Director Chloé Zhao lays the foundation for “Nomadland” in her first three shots. First, in a handheld close-up we watch middle-aged Fern (Frances McDormand) moving possessions from a storage unit to her van. Second, Zhao cuts wide, showing the van against the backdrop of the storage unit which is against the backdrop of a mountain vista and the empty valley below. Third, Zhao cuts closer again, into a medium shot of Fern and the Storage Unit manager, apparently friends, saying goodbye. If the first shot sets the scene, the second and third shots introduce the primary tension, between Fern and a desire to be alone amid the vast American landscape and a sense of community and camaraderie. Though the death of her husband combined with the closure of a Nevada gypsum plant where she worked forces her to not simply hit the road but live there, tricking out her van as a kind of moving domicile, it becomes clear that this is Fern’s personal choice rather than a mere concession, brought home in McDormand’s agreeably vinegary performance. When the daughter of a friend asks if she’s homeless, Fern corrects that she is houseless, not homeless, adding “There’s a difference, right?”, the distinct edge in McDormand’s voice letting you know this question is rhetorical.

True, “Nomadland”, based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” is framed through a post-2008 Financial Crisis socioeconomic prism, meaning that Zhao’s tendency toward open road romanticism, no matter how many times she tries to offset it by having Fern go to the bathroom outdoors, can sometimes simplistically, if not insultingly, suggest making lemonade from the lemons of such devastating economic fallout. But even if the people Fern encounters on the road, especially at an Arizona gathering of like-minded nomads, including Bob Wells, playing himself as a proselytizer for the itinerant lifestyle, have actively denounced the avariciousness of American society, McDormand hints at something more enigmatic lingering within. Her character sits and listens to Wells in one scene, McDormand ceding center stage to her non-professional counterpart, but when Fern takes a walk through the campground later, politely spurning requests to join mingling groups, there is something in the way she wraps her arms around herself, almost folding into herself, that comes on like a gentle defiance, a no fences independence even as she simultaneously fences herself off.

For such independence, however, “Nomadland” is not always interested in the day-to-day details that would seem paramount for such an off the beaten path existence. Another nomad, the real-life Charlene Swankie, briefly lectures Fern on some of these particulars, but Zhao, as she does elsewhere, cuts away before we hear this crucial lesson in full, acknowledging innate hardships without really exploring them. Kelly Reichardt sculpted an entire movie out of a homeless woman’s car breaking down, but when the engine of Fern’s van dies, this proves mostly an excuse to usher Fern home, or, more accurately, to the home of her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith). This provides a glimpse into Fern’s against the grain past, accepting a financial bailout but forgoing an offer to stay with her, much as she forgoes a similar offer from a fellow itinerant, quiet, kind Dave (David Strathairn), after she spends Thanksgiving with him at his family home in Oregon. These are the types of offers afforded, shall we say, the houseless, not the homeless, letting you know she has a way out...if she wants to take it. That she doesn’t, then, is tied into Dolly’s observation that Fern is akin to a modern American pioneer.

This observation could have just as easily been a ironic sneer, but Smith’s delivery feels entirely earnest, revealing how despite McDormand’s balanced performance, the movie itself can sometimes idealize her character. Ditto the American West where canyons, plains and mountains are frequently framed in a Purple Mountain Majesties-ish light. Then again, by rooting the camera in these moments to Fern’s point-of-view, Zhao is not rendering simple scenic postcards but evincing Fern’s life-giving force even as such lofty landscapes are shrewdly tempered elsewhere. The yellow palettes of Fern’s seasonal gig at an Amazon warehouse rising high toward the ceiling suggest a different frontier, a new, frightening American frontier where someone like Fern, who cites her love of work, her need to work, can only find it by fulfilling the materialist ethos she has rejected.

There is a scene at Badlands National Park, where Fern hikes out into a maze of canyons along with Dave, working there temporarily as a tour guide, and some others. Fern presses on without the group. Dave calls out to her and walks in her direction, though Fern moves briskly to stay ahead, looking over her shoulder with a smile. She is lovingly teasing him, of course, though this moment evokes something so much more, her preeminent desire to stay just out of arm’s reach, at one with the land instead, and reflecting the impossibility of pinning down the American Dream, whatever that might be anymore. 

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