It is not easy to watch this film about a bleak barren desolate ageing woman travelling down that road of life which has no end. It is very difficult to not fall in love with this austerely beautiful drama of desolation disrepair and despair. Writer-director Chloe Zao’s earlier films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider are masterly studies of loneliness.
Nothing has prepared us for Nomadland. Its masterly melancholic meditation on desolation is strangely uplifting. Most of the film’s running time goes into celebrating mortality, as Fern, lately widowed, leaves everything behind in her sparse life to travel across the western deserts of America in a van that has seen better days. So we hope has Fern.
But this is not your conventional road movie. And to consider it as one would be doing this great work of art a disservice. The film’s visual and emotional resplendence is hard to pin down, let alone describe. This is a film meant for the big screen. Specks of emotion, scarcely visible to the naked eye, light up frame after frame. Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is like fleeting glances of Nature from a rapidly moving train. Ephemeral yet solidly tangible.
There is an aura of imminent tragedy surrounding the protagonist. Thanks to Frances McDormand’s exceptional performance, her character Fern is not just a 'Character’. She is real. She is pained. She laughs, sulks and excretes without camera consciousness. She is with me even as I write this. She is someone who would probably not like it if I knocked on her rickety van to say hello. She doesn’t invite proximity. She is a true nomad.
Fern’s conversations with fellow-nomads, men and women who are travelling aimlessly because they have little time left and there is a long road to travel, are so direct, so blunt and so mordant, they are like expositions on existentialism simplified for the common man and woman. There is one conversation with the 74-year old Swanky (played by a real-life nomad) where she tells Fern that her cancer has spread to her brains and she has so much more to travel…Such episodes of arrested beauty defy worldly wisdom and materialism. They will stay with you forever.
Much of the time Fern is alone, in her run-down cramped van with space only to crawl into a sleeping position and bucket for attending to the call of Nature. Going through it all, Frances McDormand lives and breathes every second of Fern’s life. The Oscar would be a very small reward for a performance so monumental.
McDormand portrays Fern shorn of all self-pity. Spare her your sympathy. Fern is homeless by choice. She has a well-to-do sister who insists she stay with her and an admirer (David Strathairn) whose entire family embraces her when she pays them a surprise visit.
But that’s not the life that Fern wants. She rejects all offers of normal family life and prefers to just drive down that endless road. Why? There is no easy answer to that. But Fern will see all of us somewhere down that road. Real soon.
Written & Directed by Chloe Zao, Nomadland gets 4 stars
Image Source: Instagram/nomadlandfilm, youtube/searchlightpictures
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