Sunday, November 29, 2020

On the Road Again: NOMADLAND

Fern lives out of her van. “I’m not homeless,” she insists. “I’m houseless. There’s a difference.” She does build occasional community around herself, but even then she just as often floats on the margins at truck stops, and RV parks, and national parks, in addition to whatever odd jobs she picks up throughout the year we follow her. There’s the seasonal help at an Amazon fulfillment center, the maintenance at a park, the help in a kitchen. She drives from Nevada to Arizona to the Dakotas. She meets people who are also on the road for a variety of reasons — they’re off the grid, impoverished, retired. They’re largely friendly, and contain multitudes. Money is tight, but Fern rarely seems to mind. She keeps to herself, exchanges pleasantries, hangs out with some good buddies. She shows off her van—how she’s built room for a bed, and counter space, and storage for the bucket she uses as a bathroom. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland sticks close to her, building a plainspoken portrait of this life on the road. A nomad, Fern roams the highways and backroads of American landscapes, dwarfed by mountains, deserts, cliffs, and rolling hills dotted with tiny restaurants, gas stations, and laundromats. In this role, Frances McDormand’s commanding charisma still draws in people (a cast of mainly non-professionals who fill out the authenticity of these places), but is recessive, inward, transactional, tight-lipped oftentimes. It’s clear she’s holding the world at arm’s length distance, though she’s capable of surprising when her words lift into poetry, quite literally in a quietly astonishing moment when she recites a sonnet from memory to help a young man’s love letter to the girl he left at home. We hear she’s lost a husband; their town, having rested on a now-defunct factory, disappeared, too, in the recession. And so here she is, alone yet not alone.

The movie takes a hard look at these marginalized people, not to pity or persuade, not to explore or explain, but simply to witness. Zhao, whose previous films include settings on a reservation (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), or the ranch of an injured roper (The Rider), has become quite the chronicler of the modern-day American west, seeing with lyrical clear-eyed specificity the rhythms and pleasures, the struggles and psychology of folks left at the edge of society by happenstance or choice. Or both. Her camera floats with an observational eye for casual detail, for flukes of behavior, for cracks into wellsprings of emotion in the closed off and taciturn, for pale natural light and natural beauty. (One wonders how this preoccupation and style could possibly translate in Zhao’s next planned feature, an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Here with McDormand’s effortlessly natural performance she finds a figure equally interested in inhabiting the tangible qualities of a person rarely given the space in our society to be the center of attention. There’s nothing overwhelmingly dramatic to the incidents here, and no false narrative engine. There's simply the patient accumulation of fleeting acquaintances, employment, and sights. It imbues humanity in every frame, and reminds us that everyone has worth.

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