The Philosophy of Nomadland (2021)
Chloe Zhao’s triple Oscar-winning feature is a slow-burning, brooding drama which poses a plethora of questions upon its audience. Its focus on nomad lifestyle highlights the transients who seek an escape from their restrictive or dissatisfying pasts. There is no sugar coating in the film, yet it retains a 12A certification which allows younger audiences to view and become privy to the strange and alien life outside of urban society and wireless connectivity.
The reality of life as a nomad is explored in a rough, down-to-earth style narrative-wise but also quite literally through the expansive, wide shots of natural planes and so on. This is rooted in two creative aspects: directing and cinematography. Zhao manages to portray the most mundane and boring of situations but often juxtaposes them against a beautiful backdrop or markedly crisp shot. This reeled me in even during less appealing scenes and emphasises an appreciation for nature and the outdoors which is an integral theme in the movie and provokes wonderment.
Amazon Warehouse Workers
The protagonist, played by the masterful Frances McDormand, is an Amazon warehouse worker. Her work is based in the middle of nowhere which reflects the life of a nomad who is away from urban society and situated in remote, sparsely populated areas. This quaint detail is telling when unravelling her character as it primarily suggests transience and temporariness. Thusly, the film establishes a sense of unbelonging; she cannot stay in one place. Amazon is a multi-national, prominent company and warehouse workers are at its foundation, yet they are paid very little. Here, a capitalist social system comes into play which usurps power from the hardworking lower classes in order to fund and sustain global corporations. Nomadland wrangles and alludes to this treatment and status quo through the fungibility of warehouse workers and their subsequent lives spent in squalor, financial struggle, or constant transit.
Facing the Past
McDormand’s character, as revealed slowly throughout the film, is marred by her past where she lost everything during the Great Recession. This sparked her journey as a nomad and by the end of the movie when she revisits her old home we get a full picture of her backstory. Thusly, her reasons for her nomad lifestyle are justified through the damaging recession and we sympathise with her choice. Most of the characters in the film, the nomads mainly, are middle aged and older which suggests that a ‘normal life’ near a town or city is inadequate and unfulfilling. It also implies a dark or testing past which thrust them into this lifestyle. The nomads try to integrate into the untampered landscape of the American West but constantly move around. They cannot stay in one place as they move from site to site in a constant flux never setting up camp as the past will catch up. A past composed of memories of home and a sense of belonging which being a nomad inevitably revokes.
Symbolism and Meaning
There are so many symbols and ideas which make up this story. The idea of escapism is concurrent and its fruits visible in those beautiful shots of natural features which abetted the Best Picture and Best Directing Oscar nods. These visuals also represent the allure of life as a nomad, the ability to gaze uninterrupted at God’s creation which is a remarkably profound action. The very title, ‘Nomadland’ suggests a collective gathering and home for nomads which negates the definition of the word but accurately represents the community and people the protagonist comes across and connects with. As discussed earlier, a sense of unbelonging runs throughout and even when invited to stay at her friend’s home she cannot settle and goes on her way traversing the country in solitude.
Nomadland manages to capture the nomad in such a way that allows us to see just how lonely and difficult life can be without modern society sustaining citywide infrastructures and facilities. We truly see the difficulties of living a solitary or semi-solitary existence which is what makes this film a philosophical rollercoaster. It poses a question on whether we should abide by a constricted, madness in society or go alone as solo practitioners practising the discipline of nomadness.
Overall, this movie was a pretty slow, off-beat experience which may not suit all viewers but come the end the gravity of the events collate for an effect which makes one wonder and want to wander.