We live in a society and a culture that is suffering averse and doesn’t have any meaningful process, system, or pathway to deal with grief. Our best advice is to tell someone “I’m here if you need to talk” or tell them to see a therapist or counselor, or basically someone else who can help them “process their feelings”. But what if grief isn’t something that you can easily move on from, or something you ever can get past? What if suffering isn’t temporal, but a permanent state? Happiness isn’t a goal, but an illusive feeling that comes and goes like the warm sun on a cold and cloudy day?
In Nomadland, write/director Chloé Zhao uses van-dwelling nomads in the western United States to explore the themes of grief and survival. The fact that she does this, like her previous films, with many of the “actors” playing versions of themselves only enhances the immersiveness of the film (this year’s excellent film Sound of Metal also employs this tactic to great effect). Is it more documentary than narrative? It is hard to tell. There are moments when the characters are speaking with Fern (a sublime Frances McDormand who deserves a third Oscar) in the story, but are clearly also talking to another person behind the camera (Zhao, another person, the audience?). If that sounds like sloppy filmmaking, it isn’t. It only serves to draw you in more. This isn’t just fiction, but real life.
The main story is all about Fern. She loses everything in the great recessions and finds herself living in a van and traveling around to stay employed. To the outside, this type of life seems dangerous, isolating, and depressing. And it is, but it also provides a sort of safe cocoon of protection around the damaged Fern. It becomes clear this is a lifestyle of choice, not necessity for her, as many options to settle are passed up for her to only get back out on the road.
She is a woman deep in the throes of grief and loss, not eager to set down roots or move on from what she has lost. And to Zhao’s credit, she doesn’t try to give us much of a sympathetic window into Fern or explain away her flaws. The audience doesn’t get a character cypher to view her in a more simplistic or compassionate light. In fact, for much of the film Fern is the cypher as she bounces off other nomads, learns their stories, shares a laugh or a cry, and moves on. The only insights we get into Fern are through her own wounded eyes, and the eyes of those she wounds. Fern isn’t really capable of much more, and the film doesn’t ask her to be more than she is.
Fern’s journey is played out against the beautiful and striking background of the American West. Just like in their previous collaboration, The Rider, Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards frame the subjects against the most beautiful of backgrounds, typically with golden hour light and a wide lens. It can only be described as Malickian (a new word I will now use to describe the Terrance Malick style) in style, but unlike Malick, Zhao doesn’t rely on voiceovers, and her narrative is much more coherent and palatable for it. And the piano tracks by Ludovico Einaudi (not written specifically for Nomadland, therefore a soundtrack not a score) underneath elevate everything.
Fern does meet quite the variety of people along the way. The things they all seem to share in common are deep grief or a depression in the way life has played out for them, and the desire to keep moving just to stay alive. Some are able to eventually slow down and make peace with the world again, but many have to continue down the road. For them to stop is to let the past take them over and end them, for it is too overwhelming to just process. It can’t be managed. It can only be endured and out-ran as they keep moving. Epiphanies of peace and clarity may never come, but they are living and breathing, and that is enough.