Dir: Chloé Zhao
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematograpy, Best Editing.
Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a minor miracle of a movie, a sunset soaked dusty little diamond that encapsulates the grand beauty of the American landscape, as well as it’s numerous vistas of industrial harshness that inhabit the nations scenery. But for all the sprawling terrain on display, the heart of Nomadland is in it’s small, intimate details, it’s human stories that loom as large as the landscapes themselves. Frances McDormand stars as 60-year-old Fern, a woman who has lost both her husband and her hometown to death. Empire, Nevada where Fern used to live an unremarkable but seemingly stable life has effectively vanished from the face of the earth following the closure of its manufacturing plant. In response to the twin losses of husband and home Fern sets out on the road and into the great American landscape. In practice this means picking up seasonal work at an Amazon warehouse and sleeping in the back of her van which she is bravely and chirpily attempting to make into a liveable space.
Nomadland charts Fern’s journey across some undeniably picturesque parts of America that the film beautifully photographs as she encounters a plucky misfit cast of often real-life nomads captured with equally beautiful craft by Chloé Zhao’s camera. Written, edited and directed by Zhao, Nomadland has a quality that belies its paltry $5 million dollar budget, both with its big star actor Frances McDormand and in its technical prowess of photography. It’s clear Zhoa is a Terrence Malick fan but at the same time another of Zhoa’s heroes is present as the film fuses Malick’s nature loving ethereal style with a relevancy and personal touch akin to a Spike Lee documentary. Scenes with numerous real-life nomads who act in the piece take on a semi-autobiographical element as the subjects clearly weave their own lives, loves and losses into the tale they tell tales for Zhoa’s camera. One might feel a small twinge of exploitation here if it wasn’t for the tenderness with which each subject is treated and for the very fact that Zhoa and McDormand have clearly made a conscious decision to shine a spotlight on the way of life the film represents.
Not every nomad is ‘forced’ out on to the road, but the film allows you to glimpse, that for one reason or another it’s not much of true choice either. The practical and economic hardships are ever present, and whilst we sometimes see a dream-like American landscape, the film is a gentle pushback against the myth of the American dream. In one scene we see Fern and friends take a tour on a luxury RV with all mod cons, the group ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the space and household appliances contained within. By this point as the audience you too are thinking, as the characters are, ‘what luxury’. Then you suddenly realise, if you actually lived in this RV you would truthfully, still be living in a fucking van and effectively homeless. Mostly this type of soft approach to social commentary is entirely appropriate for the film be youn can’t help but feel Amazon gets off horrifically lightly, and you can’t help wondering if the production was in line for some money from Bezos’s corporation, or are more likely just scared of repercussions from them. Either way it’s a small price to pay for a film that showcases this type of tender beauty and filmmaking prowess.
Nomadland is by no means perfect, sometimes there is a bit of a rub between McDormand’s character and the non-professional nomad actors that nags in the back of your mind as they intersect real life events with Fern’s character backstory. Occasionally you can sense that the very presence of cameras has altered the behaviour of some its subjects, and McDormand is occasionally guilty of some slightly sycophantic moment as her performance threatens to veer from being one of realism and into one of reverence for these ‘noble’ nomads. However, McDormand has enough good sense, as does Zhao as a director, to keep these moments to a minimum even in the more actorly scenes. Understated work is present in the through line of the piece where McDormand is faces up to fellow professional performers like veteran screen actor David Strathairn, as the film delves more into the central character’s dilemmas. Overall Nomadland is a fantastically made small budget piece that gets its special effects from the earnest and deeply felt human stories of its characters both real and imagined, which are frankly more spectacular than any big budget blockbuster explosion. Having said that, see Nomadland in the cinema if you can. Despite its status as a small production, it’s undoubtedly a big screen film experience that shows both the spectacular American landscape as masterfully as it does the minutiae of expression and creases on the faces as well as in the hearts of its human subjects, which become spectacular sprawling landscapes within themselves.
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