The Meditative Contrast In Nomadland’s Anti-dollar Economy
Contrasts are beautiful, in photographs, in cloudy sky, in the green-themed burger chain, and in this year’s best picture winner at the oscars, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland.
While there were so many good nominees at the 93rd Academy awards for the best picture category including Florian Zeller’s The Father and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, it was Nomadland which took the award back home. There’s a palpable noise in Chloé Zhao’s film. It possesses the heartbreaking divinity of personal loss, an eccentric character study of a nomad and the free voices coming out of the capitalistic set-up of modern America.
Fern, played by the enigmatic Frances McDormand, loses her job after the shut down of US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. She decides to sell most of her belongings and buys a van to travel the country while searching for new work. The first job she gets is at an Amazon fulfilment centre. She seems to be an in-charge of the packaging in the factory which very evidently resembles to the mundanity in which factory workers work. She eventually gets involved with the community of modern Nomads with the help of her friend and co-worker Linda and travels to a dessert rendezvous in Arizona. She meets Bob Wells, promoter of van-dwelling, who plays a semi-fictionalised version of himself in the film. She also bonds with Swankie, another real-life nomad. As she is on the journey of van-dwelling, trying to leave behind her grief, she takes up several odd jobs. Interestingly, most of these jobs are the product of the pool of capitalism in which Americans have been swimming, not too fondly.
Displacement and self-discovery are two essential themes in Nomadland. But more than themes, these are the price and reward that Fern gets in exchange of working in places which have an ideological contrast to the teaching of Bob Wells, to the aspirations of Fern and to the entire concept of living life on the road. However, this contrast shouldn’t be mistaken with hypocrisy. It’s not. It is far away from it. It is a systemic contrast which stems from the various problems and solutions that modern American life has tried to produce. It is not Bob’s fault if he preaches minimalistic values to his fellow van-dwellers while the same people have to go work in a processing plant or at fast-food chain to in-turn support their lives in the anti-dollar economy of their own. Both of these work-places are very much part of the capitalistic society. Contrasts are beautiful, in photographs, in cloudy sky, in the green-themed burger chain, and in this year’s best picture winner at the oscars, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. It is Chloé’s screenwriting and direction brilliance that the undertones of this poetic incongruity can be found throughout the film, while also maintaining the very genuine aspirations of the nomads. Another instance is when Fern has to borrow money from her sister who lives in the city, in later part of the film. Her sister’s husband works in the real-estate which is another striking distinction to the way Fern lives her life.
The poetry in the life of Fern consisted of dealing with the immense grief of losing her house and home, figuratively, as her husband also passed away. Through Fern, Chloé tries to question the concept of home. Is it just a word or is it something you carry within you, or is it the existence of co-habitants. These questions inherently bug Fern too when her friend, Dave, whom she met in a van camp, goes to meet his son after her insistence. Fern later visits Dave and his son’s family, learning that Dave has decided to stay with them long-term, leaving behind his van life. He admits feelings for her and invites her to stay with him permanently in a guest house. Fern decides to stay for a few days but leaves in two days as she is unable to live in the concrete house. There’s one scene at Dave’s house of mere 20 seconds which steals the show. At night when Fern is unable to sleep in the guest house, she runs outside to her parked van and sleeps peacefully in it. It was as if she was gasping for her van’s bedding. She just couldn’t let go the minimalism that she had acquired in the past months living as a nomad. The next day she heads to the ocean.
Joshua James Richards shines bright as the cinematographer in the film. The beautiful landscapes and the often use of tracking shots adds up to the character study of Fern. Ludovico Einaudi’s piano pieces in the background fills in the spaces quite brilliantly when Fern is still or when there is no dialogue. Einaudi’s Low Mist track balances Fern’s longing to run away with the barren land in Empire, where her house is sulking to breathe.
She visits her house again towards the end. She gazes the dessert from the tainted window glass. Of course, the grief doesn’t go away for her. But for it to not settle in her heart, she has to go away. She sells off the remaining belongings which makes her visit the past again and again. Be it her husband’s jacket or the cutlery she saved from her childhood (which Dave broke by mistake in the middle of the film and which she tries to stick back together). She packs her bags again, starts her van; her forever home now, and drives away towards the promising highway. She drives away yet again by leaving the agony behind, maybe leaving the knowns to meet the newer ones or maybe to conflict the contrasts in order to find solace in a world which only makes sense to her when she’s in her van, like a nomad.
Nomadland (2020) is available for streaming on Disney+Hotstar in India.