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Writer/director Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is a film that very much reflects its title. Based on a true story first chronicled in the book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder, it introduces audiences to a small, nonconforming sect of American life, and delivers a picture of their experience without specific structure or narrative. It’s a tricky endeavor, as it’s the kind of journey where a wrong turn down a meandering path can derail the whole trip, but what Zhao is able to capture is captivating, and propelled by a powerful performance from Frances McDormand it stands out with a profound and earnest look at grief and growing to accept what’s lost.
Set in the wake of the Great Recession and the closing of an entire industry town in Nevada following the closure of a massive sheetrock company, the film introduces us to Fern (McDormand) as she is just beginning to accept a new way of life. With her company housing gone, and her husband having passed away shortly after losing his job, she has made the decision to abandon traditional shelter choices in favor of living in her van and moves around the region looking for seasonal work.
Just because she lives by herself doesn’t mean that she is alone, however. Through her research and reaching out she discovers a whole community of people who have made the decision to live as nomads, and it’s through those relationships as well as her own fortitude that Fern strives to thrive in the wake of losing the person in the world she loved the most.
Nomadland is woven together beautifully, with a collection of stories constructing a special whole.
Fern’s personal journey is what binds Nomadland together, as she is the audience surrogate into an unfamiliar world in addition to being a fully-formed protagonist, but where the true power of the movie can be found is in the stories she hears from her mentors along the way – each one being independently impactful while also contributing to the lead’s growth. The sequences aren’t exactly intricate, mostly set up as simple one-on-one conversations, but they bleed with authenticity and pack serious emotional weight, primarily because what Fern is hearing are real stories from real people. Each one is about the experience of loss and its harsh complexity, providing perspectives that have her evolve her personal outlook.
Whether it’s Swankie discussing a return trip to Alaska she plans to take before she succumbs to a terminal cancer diagnosis, or Bob Wells talking about how he has spent years suffering following the death of his son, the film grabs you by the heart and squeezes – only ever feeling honest and serious and never feeling exploitative or manipulative.
Frances McDormand delivers a passionate, striking turn in Nomadland.
Playing a fictional character dropped into a genuine world, Frances McDormand’s performance has a great deal of unique pressure on it, but not to be underestimated is the fact that she is one of the greatest actors of her generation. It’s certainly one of her more subdued roles, not possessing the same kind of fire as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or the outrageous folksiness of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, but in being so also a special representation of her impressive range. McDormand keeps real pain behind Fern’s eyes, but also imbues with her a tough-as-nails spirit that comes through not only in her desire to restart her life, but also her everlasting kindness.
The journey she is taken on is as compelling as any she has previously portrayed, and ultimately it will be looked at as one of the finest performances of her career. It’s a role of many notes, as Fern can be as witty as she can be solemn, and every single one is played elegantly.
Chloe Zhao’s remarkable eye creates shots that put you in the back of your chair.
Certainly one of the great gifts that comes with making a film like this is that the cinematography opportunities are endless, as this country is filled to the brim with some incredible nature and the characters are constantly moving through it. These are most definitely not opportunities that Chloe Zhao lets pass her by. Her collaboration with director of photography Joshua James Richards results in awesome cinema on both the large and small scales. They capture some incredible visuals in areas of endless sky, as well as spectacular intimacy in moments of conversation and reflection that let the entire rest of the world float away. It’s the kind of movie where you can randomly pick any frame and discover something special. This past year has been an incredibly painful one for millions of people around the world, and Nomadland is an impressive movie that unintentionally very much encapsulates the moment. It has a meaningful message for all of those that have been left grief-stricken and hurt by the on-going pandemic, and could perhaps even provide a certain catharsis for audiences. It’s great filmmaking from a talented director, and one of the industry’s best performers.