Edition 1 2021

Nomadland: Poetry in Motion

21 February 2021

One of Netflix’s haphazard movie genre suggestions I’ve always been confused by is feel-good. Common as the phrase is, unless my memory fails me, I can’t remember the last time that feeling rose organically out of a movie for me. Cue Nomadland (2020).

Disclaimer: My fellow movie-goers disagreed with me. The first thing out of one friend’s mouth after seeing Nomadland was “well that was depressing”.

I turned on him, nostrils probably flaring. And I see where he’s coming from. The story of Fern (Frances McDormand) is, a lot of the time, one of loss. When the gypsum factory Fern works for closes down in the fallout of the Great Financial Crisis, her town of Empire, Nevada does too. Like so many towns dotted across America—purpose-built around factories, manufacturing plants and warehouses—Fern’s home disappears overnight. When her husband dies, Fern calls it quits on Empire and buys a van—whom she christens Vanguard—to live out of and journey across the wide, wide West. She supports herself through seasonal jobs ranging from box packing for Amazon to cleaning caravan park toilets.

But friends, for me, this was it. Yes, there was the filth and fatal boredom, the shit in the overturned gallon bucket forcryingoutloud, the sub-zero temperatures through the van’s metal shell in your bones, and always, always the monotony.

But then, the joy. The silent spectacle of a convoy of motorised nomads trawling over the dry land and the comic community of nomads taking the great North American ride. Director Chloé Zhao, master of the modern Western, is known for using non-actors in her films. In Nomadland, real-life nomads Linda May and Swankie (mononymous: like Cher, or Madonna) are monumental in both moments of comedy and poignancy. As they spin their yarns, they are reminders made flesh of the unglamorous urgency of life. These nomads are endless wells of vitality, yet they will die someday. Nomadland’s plot is the attempt to reconcile the two facts.

Zhao cut her filmmaking teeth on Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and its follow-up The Rider (2017). Director of cinematography, Joshua James Richards’ pared back style lets the boundless West breathe and speak for itself. The quiet beauty of the endless desert pressing on Fern’s lone figure and retreating as fast as it can in all directions, as if to urge: isn’t it all worth it?

McDormand is fantastic as Fern, both at her sprightly, animated best and defensively, over-chipper worst. As Fern reminds the pre-teen she used to tutor in Empire, she is not homeless, but houseless. By turns, she is warm, passive, bright, evasive, restless and meditative. It’s an astonishing performance; an awesome tribute to figures not normally found on the silver screen.

As we left the cinema, returning to ourselves—like poet Maggie Millner said, “all doomed and glad and apple-eyed” like movie-goers do—a line from the HBO series Euphoria wormed into my head.  As a recovering addict to a recently relapsed one, Ali (Colman Domingo) tells Rue (Zendaya), “You’ve got to believe in the poetry. Because everything else in your life will fail you. Including yourself.”

Sometimes Fern knows the exact right thing to do or say, but often she runs when she should stay and hides from people who love her. Nomadland is infuriating, ironic but most of all—at the times Fern overcomes herself, the self-saboteur—it is joyous poetry.

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