HOME ON THE RANGE
On the road to Oscar glory, Nomadland is a breathtakingly shot and empathetically observed tale of marginalised people turning adversity into triumph,
Over the better part of the last decade, China-born director Chloé Zhao has made her mark as a chronicler of small lives lived on the margins of American society against the backdrop of dramatic landscapes. Her films use a combination of deep immersion in the communities she observes and the use of real people as stars of docu-fiction portraits of events from their own lives to create empathetic portraits of the realities of life in the mythical American West in the modern era.
Her 2015 debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, starred residents of the Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota to tell the heartbreaking true story of one young man’s attempts to escape the realities of reservation life in pursuit of his dreams. Her 2017 followup, The Rider, likewise starred Lakota rodeo rider Brady Jandreau and his family in a slightly fictionalised version of the struggles he faced in the wake of a near-fatal injury and the choices he was forced to make between returning to the rodeo world or leaving it behind.
In her third film, Zhao has recruited the talents of her first actual movie star — twotime Oscar winner Frances McDormand — to adapt the story told in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland. This is a story about the phenomenon of 60-something and older Americans living on the road in their cars and surviving through seasonal work in an effort to overcome the economic hardships suffered in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
As in her previous work, Zhao relies on a host of real-life nomads who populate the situations that McDormand so effortlessly slides in and out of along her character’s year-long journey down the new reality of the fabled American road.
McDormand plays Fern, a fictional character composited from the experiences of the many real people documented in Bruder’s book. She’s a woman in her 60s who, after the closure of the gypsum mine that sustained her hometown of Empire, Nevada, and the death of her husband, finds herself roaming the West in her carefully and practically kitted-out van — which she’s cheekily christened Vanguard — looking for work and new opportunities.
We follow Fern through the seasons on her journey, during which she takes a variety of jobs, including at an Amazon facility, a campsite, a fast-food outlet and on a farm during the beetroot harvest.
Although the film is set in the Trump era and many of its characters have found themselves on the road as a result of the 2008 recession, Zhao’s approach is, for the most part, apolitical — avoiding any real critique of the systematic failures that have created Fern and her nomadic comrades.
Rather, the focus is on the freedoms that the lifestyle offers and on characters who, though forced into this life through circumstances beyond their control, have found in it something that continuously offers moments of delight and surprise. As Fern sees it, she’s “not homeless, just houseless”, and this is something she’s not interested in changing.
Breathtakingly shot by Zhao’s partner and regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, the film is filled with picturesque moments that capture the contrast between the vastness of the landscape and the smallness of its everyday heroes that echo the aesthetic cosmic wonder of the West that was evoked in the early films of Terence Malick, who Zhao has acknowledged had a strong influence on her work.
With six Oscar nominations including best picture, director and actress, Nomadland has made its mark on audiences since it won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
It has also undoubtedly benefitted from a moment that Zhao and McDormand had no ability to predict when they were collaborating on its making in 2019. The freedom of the road and the dramatic vistas of the American landscape have been closed off to its citizens, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nomadland offers plenty in the way of beautiful wide-screen, nostalgia-inducing longing for those landscapes that has certainly worked to its advantage.
Ultimately, the movie offers a layered and empathetically observed account of a group of men and women who, thrust into uncertainty by events that seemed to render them powerless, found the power to turn adversity into triumph and took a leap of faith that led them to realise that even in the most terrible of circumstances you can still find a better way to live in your sunset years.
’Nomadland’ is on circuit.