Some Kind of Zen: the Mundane and the Divine in Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’

(spoiler warning later)

I can’t stop thinking about this film. For those for whom film appreciation approaches religiosity, Nomadland may be like going to church.

What writer, director and editor Chloé Zhao manages so artfully here is a narrative which moves like the free-spirit characters who inhabit the ethereal location of her film’s title. But it also moves just enough like a traditional feature that it pulls you through its peaks and valleys, its lulls and rushes, with a grace approaching Zen. 

Although I’m a practicing Christian Scientist, I like to say I’m a closet Buddhist, meaning I don’t go to organized Buddhist services, but I take a lot of lessons of Zen Buddhism with me in my daily life. What I love so much about those teachings is the idea of a kind of responsible detachment. So one is not necessarily completely detached from the world or detached from other human beings, but one need not be mentally and spiritually caught by everyday circumstance.

That’s not exactly the life Fern (Frances McDormand) is living in Nomadland, but the philosophy behind the film seems to be one of responsible detachment. What makes the film so emotionally resonant for me is the struggle it displays between spiritually succumbing to the stories we are naturally caught up in as human beings and our preternatural lust for the divine. That is the human condition. We cannot exist without that duality. Brad Bird called it “the mundane and the fantastic” in reference to his classic film The Incredibles. But while his fantastic referred to explosions – and explosions certainly have their place in cinema – Nomadland‘s fantastic is nature, charity, solace, inner peace. The divine. 

The mundane and the divine intermingle with each other in provocative and cathartic ways throughout Nomadland. What is mundane in the film is its setting within the US aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. We as an audience know what happened and have likely seen its effects. Just to see those effects directly on screen is cathartic. Fern had a life she loved with all her heart, no matter what others may have thought. She and her husband lived and worked in a contemporary version of a company town, but no one owned their labor. She worked for that company, but she also worked many other jobs, including as a substitute teacher, referenced in a pithy exchange between her and one of her former students. It’s a very brief moment, but Zhao and McDormand communicate so much with it. We see how much Fern deeply cared about that job and her students, and we hear what could be described as the thesis statement of the movie: “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

For Fern, money matters because she has to stay afloat like anyone else. But lifestyle matters just as much, if not more so. And that quest to stay authentic to the lifestyle she wants – the lifestyle she chooses – while still surviving presents an all-too-familiar American duality.

When the company Fern’s husband Bo worked for folded, so did their small town. In a double-blow for Fern, Bo passed away after an unspecified illness. The fact that we initially get less specificity about their life together (as opposed to more) grounds her as a part of the nomad community she joins. When others say their piece about why they chose the open road, Fern’s is not so monumentally important to us as to drown out their voices.

The American nomad community as depicted here is ostensibly not much different from its reality. Bob Wells – sort of the guru of modern mobile living – basically plays himself. So do Linda May and Swankie, Fern’s two closest connections on her nomadic journey other than Dave, but we’ll get to Dave later. The construction of the film is such that we hear the stories of these nomads first before we get a fuller sense of Fern’s. We first see Fern taking seasonal work, starting to make her van her home, but because we focus on a more holistic cacophony of other personal stories first, we see a broader picture of economic catastrophe and the attempt by folks to make some kind of sense – some kind of Zen – out of it. 

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

This is what makes the film’s climax so profound and moving for me. Throughout the film, Zhao is using a combination of narrative and documentary techniques and more often than not is able to blend them seamlessly. That blend places Fern’s journey to the divine in a larger context that we can all relate to. 

As Americans, we know our country is struggling. It can be overwhelming as anyone with any sense of empathy to see what is happening and not wonder how we ended up here and what our individual place is at this point in history. When Fern drives through the snowy mountain landscape she used to call home, or when she walks through the abandoned relic that is her old place of work, we see ourselves reflected because her struggle is not necessarily elevated beyond the struggles of others featured in the film. It’s a difficult thing to achieve. Fern has to be a character we deeply care about, but who also acts as a kind of cypher – a docent is how many have referred to her. She is leading us on a spiritual journey even in her most mournful moments because we cannot escape the mundane in our quest for the fantastic, and neither can she.

I would argue that at least some of that mundane is represented by Dave (David Strathairn). Fern meets Dave on-and-off throughout their travels, and the possibility of romance arises. Perhaps we would make a different decision if we were Fern. But because she has fallen in love with the nomadic lifestyle, to ask her to fall in love with anything or anyone else would be in vain. There is too much fantastic left to see on the road to settle down.

The film cemented its masterpiece status for me when Fern has to make that crucial decision. Should she stay with Dave or should she get out on the road again? A great filmmaker can take the smallest of stakes and turn them into the most burning of questions. Chloé Zhao is that filmmaker. In that moment, when Fern had not yet decided what to do, there was no question more important in the world to me. In my opinion, this is not because Fern is necessarily the most striking character, but because she holds all the film’s most heady and spiritual themes in her grasp. She is on the same plane of existence as her compatriots in their vans. Were she elevated in some way, I don’t know that the movie would have this kind of power over me. Because it is about a communal quest for the divine, it becomes absolutely universal. It’s not about Fern’s quest, it’s about ours. 

And the quest is never over.

-George Napper    

‘Nomadland’ is now streaming on Hulu and in theatrical release nationwide where theaters are open

1hr, 48min; Rated R for some full nudity

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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