This is dystopian. This is a 100-percent-American dystopia, and it’s real.
This is not science fiction. Nomadland is not “speculative.” It’s not even set in the future. It’s set in the past: 10 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis… but what it depicts is ongoing. This is — like writer-director Chloé Zhao’s previous film, the brilliant and essential The Rider — practically a documentary: it’s based on a book of nonfiction journalism by Jessica Bruder.
So: a fictional story set amidst real ones. Sixtysomething Fern (Frances McDormand: Isle of Dogs, Hail, Caesar!) has no chance of the comfortable middle-class retirement that should have come at the end of her working life. So she hits the road, living and roaming in a “ratty” van — not even a camper or an RV, just a panel truck with no running water or electricity and a bucket for a toilet, but she’s made it cosy inside — chasing seasonal work on farms and in Amazon warehouses. Everyone else onscreen, in the community of mostly elderly outcasts she finds herself among, are not actors but genuine “nomads” of the US southwest, people failed by the bullshit of the “American dream.” They look worn and tired and rough, and they ooze a cheerfulness and an enthusiasm for this difficult way of life that is hard to fathom as anything other than a whistling-past-the-graveyard attempt to keep one’s chin up when everything has gone to hell.
This is a horror movie.
Like the rest of us, though we might not realize it yet, Fern is at a crossroads of end-of-empire and late-stage-capitalism. She is adrift, ostensibly willingly but not really, in an America of crappy minimum-wage jobs and abandoned towns, company camps literally forsaken by industry and left to blow away, like Chernobyl without the radiation. The stunning cinematography — by Joshua James Richards, who also photographed The Rider and the differently themed but similiarly melancholy God’s Own Country — puts an ironic spin on cinematic imagery of the western genre. The wide open spaces are not full of potential here. They are the opposite: rundown, deserted places bereft of hope. The landscapes are only accidentally majestic, mostly desolate and forlorn. The indigenous people who once did make a living off them? We drove them off, destroyed them. And for what? For this?
This is some real 21st-century Grapes of Wrath shit, except today no one is fighting back against economic oppression. Everyone is simply resigned to it. Fern and her nomad pals are happy to pick up some holiday-rush shifts at Amazon — its warehouse is like something out of bleak science fiction — even if they are then discarded again on Christmas Eve. Even if the trailer-park fees that Amazon covers during the season get cut off as soon as the job is over. You can’t even say this is a metaphor for the life Fern and her friends are leading: Your usefulness is at an end — now get out. It’s the actual reality.
Born and raised in Beijing, educated in the UK and the US, and now living and working in California, Zhao brings a keen outsider’s eye to America, one unhindered by knee-jerk patriotism and internalized propaganda. There is not a hint, not the slightest whiff of even grudging flag-waving here. Yet she is not unsympathetic… far from it. There is joy in Nomadland, and in nomadland, and beauty, in the friendship and the connection in the wanderers’ community as they come together for gatherings, almost mini festivals to trade ideas and equipment and transitory companionship, and in their resilience and their self-sufficient philosophies. Someone — not a nomad — compares Fern to the pioneers of old, and that comes across as rather condescending, but McDormand imbues her with a dignity and a pride that tough times cannot crush, and the steel of a woman who is doing what she must to survive.
In that sense, Fern is rather like the pioneers of old: just trying to make the best possible life for herself in an unforgiving world. Fern’s possibilities are more limited than her westward-ho forebears, however. And Nomadland is a bittersweet dirge for those Americans who have come to realize that the promise of the nation has always been limited and exclusionary, and for far too many, an absolutely empty promise. It’s impossible to see how the future will not look to this film as a portrait of this moment in time. But will it be seen as an exhausted quiet before a revolutionary storm in which we all decide to make better lives for ourselves? Or will it be seen as a slow petering out of an already almost forgotten fantasy?
Oscars Best Picture 2020
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