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Nomadland

The harsh realities of the wayfarer

Nomadland

Thu 31 Dec 2020
The harsh realities of the wayfarer
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3.5 out 5 stars

With all that has gone on in the world over the past year, it is difficult to remember the challenges since the start of the millennium. As we look past the trials of bushfires and pandemics, it was not too long ago that most of the world’s population was impacted by a global recession. It was called the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in some countries, while in others, it was the Great Recession (2007-2009). Journalist Jessica Bruder wrote of the experiences of many who were impacted most by this financial downturn in her book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. This sojourner’s tale caught filmmaker Chloé Zhao's (Eternals) attention. She partners with Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri) to bring this story to cinemas.

McDormand takes on the role of the central character, Fern. After her husband's death and the closing of the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, she chooses to be a modern-day nomad that travels the American West to find work. Reminiscent of Americans' migratory nature during the Great Depression, she travels the countryside to find the next place where she can make a living. Fern lives in her van and must endure the hardships and loneliness of life on the road. Even though she can see some of the beautiful landscapes that can be experienced throughout that area of the country, every day presents new challenges and trials.

During her journey through the countryside, she discovers a community of fellow nomads led by Bob Wells (played by himself). This loosely connected band of gypsies work together to help one another through this on-the-road lifestyle. Reminiscent of a church community, they would gather for training seminars, motivational talks, meals and general sing-alongs. Yet, there would always be the time when everyone would move on and Fern would be left alone to fend for herself. Even though she did have a few friends, many would only be in her life for a season until she meets Dave (David Strathairn). Even though these two seem to have feelings for one another, they need to determine if they will choose to continue the nomadic life or settle down in one place again.

The world of 'houselessness.'

During her journey through the countryside, she discovers a community of fellow nomads led by Bob Wells (played by himself). This loosely connected band of gypsies work together to help one another through this on-the-road lifestyle. Reminiscent of a church community, they would gather for training seminars, motivational talks, meals and general sing-alongs. Yet, there would always be the time when everyone would move on and Fern would be left alone to fend for herself. Even though she did have a few friends, many would only be in her life for a season until she meets Dave (David Strathairn). Even though these two seem to have feelings for one another, they need to determine if they will choose to continue the nomadic life or settle down in one place again.

In one scene, Frances McDormand’s character spends time with her family. Her sister explains how Fern’s nomadic life is an American tradition. You can point back to various times throughout US and human history where this lifestyle was even the norm instead of the exception. Audiences may be taken back to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or even many Old Testament characters as examples of this world of ‘houselessness.’ In this modern tale, Chloé Zhao manages to take the romantic novelty out of this experience and show the desolate reality of life on the road while expressing the humanity of those who live out this solitary existence and how it can be a respite for many.

By portraying every aspect of a wayfarer's life, the production team delivers a story with hints of subtle human experiences tied together with long moments of loneliness. The cast and crew lived out of vans throughout the production. Along with using the actual individuals written about in Bruder’s book to play themselves. These calculated elements brought authenticity and a documentary-style feel to the overall production. Even though McDormand is convincing in this role, the real-life nomads manage to steal the show. These wandering souls give the world a glimpse into their world of apparent freedom and their minimalist world.

Despite the accolades that are being poured down on this film, the one thing that it lacks is hope. Even with the novel and genuine philosophies of Bob Wells as a backdrop, this community truly has an Ecclesiastical feel to it. Their journey is an outward expression of how life is a vapour or a mere breath. Yet, if you really listen there are eternal whispers of the words of James as you view the film:

‘Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’ (James 4:14)

Unlike the Bible, the message of this film leaves the viewer cold and empty. As you listen to Swankie and Wells's words in the movie, they merely point to actions of moving on with life and then dying. While what we can know from the Bible is our time on this earth is meant to count for something significant. Paul said, “In the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain” (Philippians 2:16). There are even more examples given that show that we can have hope from the Lord that our “labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Nomadland is a good film, but the overall message seems to be wrapped in despair. Instead of buying into these dark and depressing themes, know that life can be better. Life is short, but eternity is even longer. Take time to consider that you can have hope now and forever.

“I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

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