A few days before 12th May 2021 , a wholly unprecedented announcement came through Facebook. That benevolent, caring social media platform most people are in love with, carried a post from Sky cable TV provider that ‘Nomadland’ , which had won the Best Picture Oscar a few weeks before, would air on the Sky Premiere movie channel at no extra charge. Yippeee Keee Yay !!! 

Like many others, my interest in this sleeper hit arose because of its lone star Frances McDormand rather than its director-screenwriter-editor Chloe Zhao. I’ve seen only one film of hers – ‘Fargo’ – but that is enough to last a lifetime.

Do you remember that time in your life when it was snowing and bitterly cold ( if it does not snow where you live, when it was snowing in your imagination ) and you took out our RV for the road ? ( if you do not have your RV, then your bicycle).  It was an intensely lonesome journey that lasted months and years, gnawed at by ascetic limitations, scrappy people on the move, gobbets of nirvana you created yourself between oceans of drudgery and eventually grandly no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.  This is the movie that captures that solitudinous odyssey.

Fern ( Frances McDormand ) is a lady pushing 60. We are introduced to her through a printed announcement first, that defines her life at that juncture. The game changer is not something which happens to her personal life, rather it is the news that the US Gypsum factory in the high-altitude town of Empire, Nevada has closed down in 2011 because sheet rock ( a construction material ) is no longer in demand. Fern packs up, hugs her residential manager goodbye, sets up a Recreational Vehicle for a live-in relationship and sets out to be on the road. She will take what jobs she can along the way and she is not terribly fussed about living in a house again.

At 108 minutes, the movie mercifully finished before I looked at my watch for the third time. To her credit , director-screenwriter-editor Chloe Zoe edits the tale with reasonable journeyman smoothness. Sometimes one nods off but there is always something interesting happening on screen – just do not be under the impression that there are dazzling sequences in store. It is content to record mundane moments one by one and is artistically more low-key than ‘Moonlight’ - its Best Picture Oscar cousin. The camera work is decent and the music is suitably understated, with rare instances where it rises to the melodic overline as when Fern walks a long way through the trailer park. Fern is interested in the people she meets but is clearly not in the mood for a relationship at this stage of her life, and it is this rubric which permeates the roaming grazing buffet that feeds the storyline.

The long life she’s had in Empire, Nevada where she chose to stay on after the death of her husband, ultimately builds up to a point which triggers her decision to travel and explore. Viewers may remember another film – the totally wonderful ‘About Schmidt’  from Alexander Payne and Jack Nicholson – where a retired sexagenarian with a recently dead wife, Warren R. Schmidt, decides to hit the road with his RV with a few things on his agenda. The key difference is that Schmidt is loaded, from a lifetime of uptight savings, while Fern is so broke that a $ 2000 bill to fix the RV she sleeps in, has her in knots. The shortage of money gnaws at so much of her journey, but beyond the money, she encounters others who have suffered more than her, nice people who are making do or even transcending the bum card life dealt them. It is the picture’s biggest strength – to see these people who lost so much, but who want to live and make life better for others. We may not be able to live for ourselves but we may live on for others.

Fern aims for the bull’s-eye when she takes on some mortgage-slinging cowboys in a casual backyard party. She states how they have suckered people into a lifetime of debt in signing up for houses. There are pros in owning a house of course, but the cons she highlights cannot be ignored. One difference is that she never had children, and the options which seem ripe for her may not be that attractive for young parents. 

There are two sequences in the movie where woman and bird reach a memorable communion. One is when Fern is sent a video – where a colony of swallows generate the ecstasy that the dude in ‘American Beauty’ found with a flight of a plastic bag. Another is where Fern is ensconced in her van munching on a hunk of fried chicken. It is one of life’s great joys – captured here as well as in any other movie. She is however rudely interrupted by a man banging on her van door telling her she can’t park there.  It’s almost like coitus interruptus and pic is particularly good at capturing these slice—of-life moments of arrested joy.

How will this end ?   Viewers expecting a traditional cozy ending are missing the woods for the trees, especially when the mood to keep going is only just about getting started. McDormand won the most famous award for her performance, and while subtlety is the guiding force required from this role, I did not enjoy her act which could have done with more modulation and more situations to engender that. Director-screenwriter Zhao now has the world at her feet and in her next features, hopefully she gives her characters more room to manoeuver.

Richard Brody in the New Yorker commented in the header that the film looks at this lady of modest means from the outside, but does not adequately look at the world through her eyes. I do not fully agree. Zhao accomplishes a sly trick when a whole one minute dossier of personal information about Fern is given only towards the end of the picture by a close relative who is in a much more comfy position. Till then, we have to figure out by ourselves who this lady is and what brought her to this point. We can see she is a nice sort, has a decent capacity to maintain friends and also attract a good partner. But beyond the fact that her husband died a few years ago and she has no children, we see very little of her social circle from her time in Empire, Nevada. She is almost bankrupt – granted, her previous job was not a high paying one, but was there a crisis which took away all her savings ? A film does not have to show everything, but by reasonable extrapolation and direct observation, we can understand a lot about this lady.  Probably I will return to Brody’s review in the future to see what he was getting at ( sometimes he gets at things that aren’t there ).

The Best Picture Oscar has ensured that a lot more people will see ‘Nomadland’. It is not the worthiest winner of the award , but high-profile awards like these are a gutsy affirmation of highlighting these pictures about unglamorous people. The Oscars need more applauding here than ‘Nomadland’.  I saw the awards ceremony, with youth-adjacent Chloe Zhao speaking with giddy excitement on the podium after the award was announced. She then called McDormand to speak, introducing her as “Here’s Fern”.  McDormand came forward, said ‘ No I’m not Fern, I’m Frances’, uttered a few words, made strange noises and then it stopped. The brusqueness and oddity would have impressed the Coen Brothers. Turns out it is ‘Nomadland’ on the Los Angeles red carpet too.




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