“Home, is it just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?” reads one of the many tattoos of a modern-day nomad who is lunching with fellow vagabonds at the Amazon Fulfilment Centre. It is a line from the Steven Patrick Morrissey song, Home Is A Question Mark. Director Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland explores this idea of home from the perspective of Fern (Frances McDormand), who lost not just her home but her whole town of Empire, Nevada to the Great Recession.
The gypsum plant in her town closed its doors rendering almost all of the population there jobless, and even its ZIP Code was discontinued. After losing her husband as well, Fern hits the road in a van and takes up odd and seasonal jobs to get by. So, when Fern just mouths ‘nice’ as a reaction to her companion’s tattoo, we know the lines have hit her harder than she is willing to express. Chloe’s film is all about this subtleness though it deals with people who have taken some dramatic life decisions.
However, with Fern, one keeps wondering whether she has chosen this life by choice or if it was thrust upon her. For instance, she is not like her fellow nomad, 75-year-old Swankie. After the death of her husband, Swankie, now diagnosed with cancer, has decided not to wait but ‘live the life.’ Fern doesn’t seem to be living the life, rather, she comes across as someone who is playing a bad hand. Yet, she is also not willing to take up opportunities for living a conventional life. Fern refuses the offer of her well-to-do sister in California to take her in. The nomad also turns down the love of Dave (David Strathairn), another nomad who has now returned to his home. Director Zhao doesn’t reveal the reason behind Fern’s adamance immediately, but as the film inches towards the end, we know why her protagonist does what she does.
Fern is not in search of a new home, she is holding on to her lost home, which now lives only in her memories. Her predicament reminded me of a line from Kamal Haasan’s Manmadan Ambu, “Naam vaazhndha vazhvukku saandravadhu innoru uyir thaanadi.” People and things live more in intangible thoughts than in their corporeal existence. And what if those memories fade? Fern doesn’t want that.
Chloe Zhao’s adaptation of the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder is simultaneously personal and universal. By lingering on the individual issues of this brooding widow, the director explores the human condition and its vulnerabilities. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ camera ably captures this. It is intimate when capturing personal moments like Fern relieving herself in the van, looking at her belongings, and her interactions with other nomads. At the same time, it has an indifferent gaze when it presents the glorious and treacherous landscape of the American west, where human bodies look infinitesimal and insignificant.
The candidness of the performances of the cast, which features many real-life vagabonds, adds to the sober tone of the movie. The exchanges are real and reflect life’s mundaneness. This sets Nomadland apart from other existential road movies like say, Into The Wild (2007). What is even more impressive about Nomadland is that it doesn’t romanticise the vagabond life. Chloe Zhao doesn’t take a celebratory tone even during the scenes where these nomads are having a good time.
Instead, her gaze is unbiased and rational. Even Bob Wells, a popular van dweller, and writer, who plays a fictionalised version of himself, doesn’t become an authoritative figure here. He is just a fellow human when he tells Fern, “One of the things I love about this life is that there’s no final goodbye...I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’” The line hits hard even to those who don’t lead that life because we know that ‘the road’ he is talking about is much more than a concrete thoroughfare connecting two places.
Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie