On the verge of the October long weekend, I watched the Nomadland DVD. I had already read and reviewed the original book which formed the basis for the flick. The film version was perhaps the most acclaimed of the past year. It won the Golden Lion in Venice; the Best Picture and Best Director Globes; and three Oscars including Best Picture. This also marked the third and fourth statuettes for Frances McDormand. The picture is a heavy drama that feels longer than its 103-minute run time. Nomadland introduced us to a culture on the fringes; not the homeless but houseless.
Nomadland is based on the author’s actual experiences, which was depicted here as Fern. Bruder is in her thirties, and she embraces the wandering lifestyle. In the film, the protagonist is in her midlife. Fern’s backstory was that she lived in a well-off community called Empire. Her husband died and she stayed at the residence until the time came to leave. Before he passed away, her late hubby was the one who prodded her: ‘Just don’t waste any time, girl. Don’t waste any time.’ She decided to get rid of her sailboat and hit the road. The nomad culture is certainly nothing new but the global financial crisis in 2008 expedited this. Thus, the itinerants did not go on the road by choice. Seasonal employment sustains them, and a decent parking spot is essential. They go to various places in search of dollars, braving the snow and the elements.
Like Fern, most of them are older. They’ve lived long lives already. They’ve tried their hand at various industries and worn many hats. This is just another chapter in their subsistence. The first company shown is a big, powerful multinational. Fern receives pay checks for a few months of drudgery. In one scene, the repetitive tasks are ears of the current age. Initially reluctant, she attends the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) in Quartzsite, Arizona. The messages from Bob Wells, one of the founders, intrigue her. There, she meets like-minded travellers, sells rocks, and embraces the wandering culture. ‘It’s a lifestyle of freedom and beauty and connection to the Earth.’ In what would become a common theme, there are sweeping shots of Fern walking through dusk.
There is an eloquent silence that pervades the film. In this sense, the choreography bears resemblance to Moonlight (2017). The production is classified as neo-western and Nomadland does more to highlight this genre than any other cousin in recent memory. There is no comparable title in this variety that has been more visible or lauded. The screenplay has an understated elegance. Aside from the dusk scene, there is a similar lake scene. Likewise, the bonfire at the rendezvous – where the camp said vale to Swankie – was another segment worthy of the ‘director’s cut.’ The helmer ensures that the simple act of walking and pricing gains greater meaning.
The movie’s surreal feel is reminiscent of American Beauty, another production that did well during the awards season many moons ago. Some might interpret this phantasmagoria as sadness. This is true especially as Fern celebrates Christmas alone, complete with kitschy reindeer ears. Ditto as she utters ‘Happy new year’ to herself. When she wanders unaccompanied, or sits alone, we feel her solitude. She gets over the loneliness by helping and serving people. As Bob Wells put it, ‘I think that connecting to nature and to a real true community and tribe will make a difference for you.’
Fern meets guy
Meanwhile, she meets Dave while serving as a camp host in Badlands National Park. Quick aside: the Badlands landscape was ethereal. David Straitharn plays the guy. A familiar face, he is known to audiences for his role in the Bourne franchise. She accepts his invitation to visit his family and meet Dave’s grandchild. While there, Dave admits having feelings for Fern. He extends an invitation to stay in their guest house. Fern decides against this and is soon on her way to the waves. The story comes full circle, with Fern going back to the company at the start. She catches up with Bob, who becomes emotional as he shares a family tragedy. Reflecting on the journey, the latter says that ‘One thing I love about this life is there’s no final goodbye.’ A while later, Fern goes back to Empire to rid herself of her belongings. She stops by the factory and the abode which she shared with her fallen husband. The final scene, where she drives her van on the road, was a nod to Good Will Hunting (1997).
The film is notable for mobilising the real-life nomads mentioned in the book. Among them are Linda May (as herself), Charlene Swankie (Swankie), Bob Wells (as himself), Peter Spears (as himself) and others. This lends more authenticity and credibility to the performers. I found the main role intriguing. In the source material, as mentioned, the protagonist is a bit younger. She took in the nomad lifestyle for research purposes. She arguably lived in a recreation vehicle (RV) out of curiosity, not necessity. In the film adaptation, the lead is older by decades and survives a deceased husband. The Empire subplot was appropriated from other characters’ plight in the text. In addition, this was adjoined for dramatic effect. Interestingly, the same was true with The Dry. The novel’s hero, Aaron Falk, was described as blonde. In the feature, he is played by Eric Bana, who has darker hair. In the end, all this shows how Hollywood rewrites narratives and roles for better entertainment value.
Movie of the year
The movie was a commercial success, grossing $37.4 million worldwide against a $5 million budget. Moreover, the flick was also a darling for critics and audiences alike. Nomadland batted two out of four at the Globes, winning Best Picture – Drama. At the Oscars, the production snagged three statuettes. This included Best Picture, Best Director for Zhao, and Best Actress (McDormand). The Best Director gongs were landmark victories for Asians and women in Hollywood. Being one of the flick’s producers, McDormand bagged two trophies on the night. As noted, this has brought her total to four career statuettes. In view of these accolades, Nomadland gets the well-deserved title as the film of 2020.