Friday, March 19, 2021

Nomadland: On the Road Again

At a time of lockdown, the allure of Nomadland seems particularly potent. While many of us are stuck at home, consigned to staying within our own familiar ruts, the characters in this quietly magical film keep on trucking. Partly it’s a matter of economic distress, but mostly it’s a choice: these are people who frankly love the romance of the open road. And the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Joshua James Richards (one of six nominations garnered by Nomadland this past week) captures the landscape of the American west so gorgeously that afterwards I wanted to pack up and set out for Arizona or the South Dakota badlands. Maybe it takes a foreigner like the Beijing-born director Chloé Zhao to teach us to look with new appreciation at our own land.

 But the film is more than a travelogue. Director Zhao has a clear passion for cinéma verité. Here, as in her acclaimed earlier film, The Rider, she incorporates in central roles the people—non-actors—who are really living the tale she wants to tell. This means that such just-plain-folks as Linda May, the charismatic Bob Wells, and the feisty, dauntless Swankie appear as (presumably) the van-dwelling travelers they really are. And the film’s lead actors, including the much-honored Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, pitch their performances to match the everyday rhythms of the non-pros, convincing us that they too are part of this special world.

 For a while, in watching this film, you’ll find yourself expecting some big drama to burst onto the screen. We’re so conditioned to appreciate movies full of blood and guts that we’re waiting for impending disaster: a rapist on the loose, a disastrous accident, a crippling loss. As we eventually discover, the undulations here are so much more subtle than the big crescendos of most Hollywood movies. McDormand’s Fern, whom we first meet as she’s signing in for a shift at an Amazon warehouse, has long since adapted to life on the road. The big events of her time on earth--her leaving the family home, her long marriage, the loss of her husband and of the mining community that once sustained them both—have all occurred long in the past, and she’s made her peace with the lifestyle of a wanderer, traveling the back roads in a rickety old van that doubles as her home. It’s a life that she (mostly) finds emotionally sustaining, full of peripatetic friendships, a variety of odd jobs, and wide open spaces tantalizing in their beauty. So attached is she to this vagabond way of life that she can’t be tempted by a comfy bed in the home of an hospitable friend. No, she’s got to keep shoving on.

 Which is not to say that she’s always happy. Aside from the daily challenges of life on the road, Fern is quietly facing her past and her future. A dying road buddy is a reminder that she won’t always have the capacity to survive on her own.  And, though it takes us a while to fully recognize it, the loss of her husband and of the house they shared for so many years is not something that her chipper attitude toward the world can fully mask. It’s a subtle performance, but one of McDormand’s best, indicative of her ability to disappear into salt-of-the-earth roles that make this extraordinary actress seem wholly average.

 I’ve just discovered McDormand will soon appear as Lady Macbeth, opposite Denzel Washington, in a film directed by her husband, Joel Coen. Macbeth’s blood-thirsty lady is hardly the salt-of-the-earth type, and I can’t wait to see the results. 



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