Is it a happy movie or a sad one?
That might feel like a pretty silly question, but it was the one that kept swirling around in my head as I watched Chloé Zhao’s latest film, “Nomadland.” Written and directed by Zhao and based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, the movie centers itself on one woman, Fern (Frances McDormand), and her movements around the western United States in her van.
Over the course of the movie, we slowly learn Fern’s backstory, but early on some key things are evident: after living much of her life in a small town, Empire, she leaves after the twin catastrophes of losing her husband and seeing main source of business in the town, a gypsum mine, close (present in the movie is no small critique of capitalism as it is currently unfolding in our nation). She was, it seems, forced into this nomadic life in her van, wandering from campground to campground, working a few months at one place before hitting the road again.
Crucially though, being forced into a life doesn’t mean not finding happiness there, and Zhao offers up plenty of the joys and camaraderie that can be found amongst these nomads. People swirl into and out of the movie as Fern meets them at one stop and sees them again down the line at another. As we watch the movie, we see Fern struggle with problems like breakdowns and money woes, but she consistently chooses life in her van even when other options present themselves, leaving us to wonder whether it’s stubbornness or happiness (or both).
There are a number of true nomads in the movie, offering up fictionalized versions of reality (not knowing their lives I do not wish to call them fictionalized versions of themselves). This adds a level of documentary-esque authenticity to the work (easily also found in Zhao’s last film, “The Rider”). This isn’t to say that what we get is true, but rather that everything in the movie feels true. Everything in the movie feels real. There are other professional actors in the movie, most notably David Strathairn, but between the use of character names—Strathairn plays Dave—makeup, costumes, and camera work, what we are left with is something unvarnished.
That camerawork from cinematographer Joshua James Richards (who is also the production designer) is absolutely stunning. He offers up wide open vistas which sometimes, yes, are beautiful, but far more often feel excruciatingly lonely. Even when Fern is in a campground with others, we feel the weight of the nothingness around her. When she is in conversation with folks or they’re telling their stories, Richards is right up in the speaker’s face. We see every worry line, every hint of a smile, and are truly placed there with them, listening to their tales and becoming a part of the conversation. Again, what we are left with here is a sense of unvarnished truth, even if it is fiction. Happy stories or sad stories, they feel like real stories.
It is in part due to the open vistas and the difficult life Fern has led and the abrasive way in which she regularly interacts with those around her, that I have the perception that the movie is a sad one. Added to this mix is music from composer Ludovico Einaudi, which speaks of a haunting loneliness.
Despite this perception on my end, Zhao and McDormand keep us on the edge of our seat throughout “Nomadland.” We sit there and watch as Fern runs off from a tour of a national park and fear her getting lost out there alone. But, looking at her face, it is impossible to tell if Fern is happy or scared or both. Is she afraid she will never see her van again or is she content to simply be out there in the wilderness, seeing the beauty of it?
This is the key question of the work and we receive it not just in the way the movie is presented, but in the questions others ask of Fern. Is Fern okay? Is she happy? Is this what she wants? And—oh so importantly—are we simply using our understanding of what makes for a happy life as a lens by which we determine whether Fern is happy? We must also ask whether Fern is consciously forcing others to ask that question of themselves, doing so in the full knowledge that she is in fact unhappy but that by turning the question around, she’ll get others to leave her alone.
“Nomadland” is one of the most beautiful, most haunting, most sad movies I have seen in a long time. Yes, sad, but sad for me, maybe not sad in general. Because even if Fern is happy, even if this is what she wants (and I remain unconvinced), it makes me sad because the movie makes it possible for me to put myself out there all alone, living that lifestyle, and I know the hurt I would be feeling if I did so.
photo credit: Searchlight Pictures