It has become cliché to consider how much everything changed in 2020, but the practical ramifications of the pandemic only tell a partial story. This year altered everything about the way we process the world and consider its frailty. Storytelling was not exempt. Most movies and TV shows looked like instant period pieces. Zoom became a gimmicky template for everything from reunion episodes to found-footage horror movies. But the very best drama to capture the essence of this difficult year was made before it started.
In “Nomadland,” Frances McDormand’s Fern roams the empty vistas of a world defined by dislocation. Driving through rocky landscapes from Nevada to California and many desolate places in between, the widow eludes the loneliness of growing old in rural America by reinventing her relationship to it. Having lost her husband years ago, Fern initially stayed put in the abandoned ghost town where they built their lives, only to find that the memories haunting her became a burden. On the road, at the mercy of an itinerant lifestyle, she discovers some measure of salvation. “I am houseless,” she tells one disbeliever. “Not homeless. There is a difference.”
Fern’s story is simple, but Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards endow many scenes with the deep, unspoken awakening at the root of her journey, with each vast outdoor image adding a new dimension to the growing tapestry. By living hand to mouth, trading a sandwich for a beer and hanging with fellow nomads by the desert fire, Fern achieves a profound connection to a society at odds with the expectations of its most coddled dreamers.
By some metrics, Fern’s decisions are reckless, self-destructive, and hurtful to those who care about her well-being — from the judgmental relatives she shrugs off to the kindly suitor (David Strathairn) whose advances she rejects. However, as Zhao positions the narrative from Fern’s perspective, it allows her own value system to take hold. In doing so, the movie settles into a fascinating window into the psychological hurdles of 2020.
As the pandemic took hold, the very notion of the American dream was sidelined by overnight fears about the collapse of even the slightest of society’s conveniences. In that regard, Fern’s instincts sync with the moment: When amenities are in short supply, the quest for happiness becomes an internal one. In one of the movie’s most powerful moments, “Nomadland” showcases a monologue by real-life nomad Swankie, a woman dying of cancer who explains why her life was fulfilled simply because of the poignant memories of the natural world she’s witnessed from her kayak: Pelicans soaring overhead in Colorado, a moose family gathered near an Idaho river, a small army of swallows swarming around her and reflecting in the waves. Zhao trusts the authenticity of these memories so well that the camera simply sits with Swankie’s face, as “Nomadland” becomes one with her journey through life.
How many of us, sitting at home and contemplating the pleasures of a life on temporary hold, can relate to Swankie’s heartrending journey through time? Not everyone has lived to witness the wonders of the natural world on such a majestic scale. But few experienced the past year without undergoing some sense of loss, however large or small, and many us have found solace in remembering how it used to be.
As for Fern, well, her journey has only started when “Nomadland” comes to an end. But even though Zhao’s Oscar-worthy storytelling doesn’t arrive at the same payoff that she delivered in “The Rider,” with its indigenous cowboy carving out a new direction in life, the new movie delivers a sophisticated set of implications. Fern’s story closes on a note of ambiguity that celebrates the open possibilities of a liberated existence. It’s a bittersweet encapsulation of what it means to push forward, surrounded by a complex mess of emotions but untethered by their assault. “I just don’t want to be comfortable anymore,” she says at one point. It’s an instructive line: By embracing her instability, Fern is the great movie hero this year’s moviegoers never knew they needed.
Of course, most won’t get the chance to experience that journey until “Nomadland” widens its release in 2021 and hits digital platforms. Fortunately, many of 2020’s most memorable cinematic achievements offer similar wisdom about these bizarre, alienating times. Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” unfolds in vacant scenery of the Oregon Territory in the late 19th century, where two men from vastly different cultures find some comfort in companionship, and their mutual desire to chart a plan through an uncertain world. Likewise, the young protagonists of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” battling their way through the hostile streets of New York in search of an abortion, illustrate the power of resilience in the midst of a hopeless, insular society. Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” digs deep on the travails of getting lost in a troubled mind, musing on the dangers of solipsism and the impact of overthinking one’s own tragic condition. And of course, there was no story with more immediate ties to the seriocomic lunacy of 2020 than “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm.”
But when it comes to the cinematic experience most acutely tied into the present mood, “Nomadland” reigns supreme. It wasn’t planned that way, of course, but virtually nothing about this year has been. Intentionally or not, “Nomadland” reflected the essence of 2020, and it’s no surprise that the achievement comes from a filmmaker whose body of work revolves around the quest for personal satisfaction on the margins of American life. “Nomadland” doesn’t exactly make the case that everyone would be better off living in an RV. But it’s a vivid salute to the catharsis of moving ahead at all costs. That’s an inspiring idea in 2020, and an especially welcome one as we finally escape its clutches.