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Nomadland Review: Unstable Americans

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People want to be settled, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is only to the extent that they are unstable that there is hope for them. This tension between stability and uprooting, between the illusory consolations of the house and the risky attraction of the open road, lies at the heart of Nomadland, Chlo Zhaos’ expansive and intimate third feature film.

Based on the animated and well-reported Jessica Bruders book of the same name, Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a fictional former resident of an ancient real-life place. The film begins with the end of Empire, Nevada, a corporate city that officially ceased to exist in late 2010, after the local gypsum mine and Sheetrock mill closed. Fern, a widow, takes the freeway in a white van she names Vanguard and personalizes with an alcove, kitchen area and storage space for the few memories of her previous life. Fern and Vanguard join a dispersed, rolling tribe, a subculture and literal movement of itinerant Americans and their vehicles, an unstable nation within the borders of the United States.

Bruders’ book, set in the aftermath of the Great Recession, focuses on the economic upheavals and social upheavals that are pushing people like Fern to middle age and older; middle class, more or less on the road. Reeling from unemployment, broken marriages, lost pensions and collapsing home values, they work long hours in Amazon warehouses during winter vacations and poorly paid stays in national parks during the summer months. They are free but also desperate, pressed by rising inequalities and a frayed safety net.

Zhao smooths out some of this social criticism, focusing on the practical details of vagrant life and the personal qualities of resilience, solidarity, economy of its adherents. With the exception of McDormand and a few others, almost everyone in Nomadland plays versions of themselves, having made the slightly magical transition from the non-fictional page to the non-documentary screen. They include Bob wells, the beautifully bearded mentor of legions of van dwellers, who summons them to an annual conclave, cultural festival, self-help seminar in Quartzsite, Arizona; Swankie, an intrepid kayaker, problem solver and nature lover; and Linda May, a central figure in Bruders ‘book who almost steals the film as Ferns’ best friend.

Friendship and loneliness are the poles between which Zhaos’s film oscillates. He has a loose, episodic structure and a low-key harsh mood that matches the ethos he’s exploring. Zhao, who edited Nomadland in addition to writing and directing, sometimes lingers on majestic western landscapes and sometimes quickly jumps from one detail to another. As in The Rider, his 2018 film about a rodeo cowboy in South Dakota, is attentive to the interplay between human emotion and geography, how space, light and wind reveal character.

It captures the bustle and boredom of long days of ferns driving or at work; disturbances caused by weather conditions, interpersonal conflicts or vehicle problems without rushing or dragging. Nomadland is patient, compassionate, and open-minded, motivated by a desire to wander and observe rather than judge or explain.

Fern, we eventually find out, has a sister (Melissa Smith), who helps her out of a jam and praises her as the bravest and most honest member of their family. We believe these words because they also apply to McDormand, whose courage, empathy and discipline have never been so clearly evident. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a demonstration of award-seeking acting technique, an embodiment of bravura by movie stars of an ordinary person. Rather the opposite. Much of what McDormand does is listen, provide moral and emotional support to non-professional actors as they tell their stories. Her skills and sensitivity help you persuade yourself that what you see is not only realistic, but true.

Which brings me, a bit reluctantly, to David Strathairn, who plays a traveling companion named Dave. He’s a soft-spoken, silvery-haired man who grabs Ferns’s attention and gently tries to win his affection. His attempts to help her are clumsy and not always well judged he offers her a bag of licorice sticks when she wants a pack of cigarettes and although Fern likes her rather well, his feelings are decidedly mixed.

Mine too. Straitharn is a wonderful actor and an intriguing, non-toxic male presence, but the fact that you know that as soon as you see him is a bit of a problem. Our first glimpse of Dave, who is concentrating behind a box of can opener during an impromptu exchange meeting, comes close to a spoiler. The vast horizon of Ferns’ story suddenly threatens to contract into a plot. He promises or threatens that a familiar narrative will overtake Fern and the movie.

To some extent, Nomadland’s wish to settle down doesn’t necessarily want to domesticate their heroine, but at least bend their journey into a more or less predictable arc. At the same time, and in a beautiful Emersonian spirit, the film rebels against its own conventional impulses, gravitating towards a more complicated, more open, more contradictory idea of ​​experience than most American films are willing to allow.

Zhaos’s Vision of the West includes breathtaking rock formations, ancient forests, and sweeping desert vistas, as well as icy parking lots, trash-strewn campsites, and cavernous, soulless workplaces. In the context of the Badlands or an Amazon fulfillment center, an individual can be reduced to next to nothing. Nomadic existence is both a recognition of human impermanence and a protest against it.

Fern and his friends are united as much by the experience of loss as by the spirit of adventure. So many of the stories they share are tinged with grief. It’s hard to describe the mix of sadness, wonder, and gratitude you feel in their company in Ferns company and through his eyes and ears. It’s like discovering a new country, a country that you might want to visit more than once.

Nomadland
Rated R. Live hard and talk that way too. Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes. In theaters and on Hulu. Please consult Guiding lines described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies in theaters.

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