Nomadland is Chloé Zhao’s latest masterpiece that confirms her auteur status as Frances McDormand delivers the best performance of the year. It’s a Debra Granik-esque look into the portrayal of modern-day nomads in America, wandering the west not without a home but without a permanent residence in one place. More often than not these nomads are forced into their current situation because of a depression, but they adapt to the freedom and find it hard to be tied down. It’s a fascinating character study that McDormand excels at, with the film mixing in a group of professional and nonprofessional actors to add a bit of eccentricity and authenticism to the American Midwest that makes it feel all more real, using many of their stories for inspiration to flesh out the script beyond the structure of its source material.
The film’s powerful character study keeps things lowkey and understated shining in its moments of solitary, much akin to the likes of The Rider and Songs my Brothers Taught Me, both of which proved that Zhao is a master when it comes to the open road. The film’s portrayal of loneliness and of a life left behind by traditional society focuses around characters who develop a community within that loneliness, seeking out likeminded, forgotten souls. Blue-collar jobs are the norm here; McDormand’s Fern spends time grifting from place to place, working at Amazon on year, in a campsite the next, picking up friends and acquaintances along the road. But as is the life of the wanderer; they don’t stay at your side forever, and soon, Fern finds herself letting many popcornstarz go. But it’s never a goodbye. Just a promise. They’ll meet again, she’s told. Maybe not this year or the next. But further on down the road. One of the film’s most affecting moments is watching a group of Nomads sing along to Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again around a campfire, changing the lyrics to fit their own purpose, and it comes as a heartfelt burst of optimism. This is a film where, if you allow it to, it will make you cry, multiple times.
The picturesque cinematography is amazing; the landscape shots of Nomadland resemble a Terrence Malick film which is comparable to everything that Zhao has brought to the table in her recent works, especially in The Rider. There’s a deep-rooted portrayal of humanity in all its forms in Nomadland, which also serves as a timely, post-recession critique of big-budget corporations and trickle-down economics. There’s a small shot of an independent cinema that Fern walks past playing The Avengers, and nothing else – the Amazon warehouse feels trapping to Fern, as does all of the houses that she visits. Zhao, who wrote the adaption and edited the film in conjunction to directing it, emerging as a triple threat, coupled with McDormand’s performance, does a real job at getting into the character’s headspace when she’s feeling trapped behind the walls of one particular place, and the suburbuan enviroment that feels warm and welcoming to Fern’s family doesn’t to her.
She has this inability to settle, and is often criticised for it by family and their neighbours, but to her, it gives her a sense of freedom and exploration, the sense of wonder to make the unknown known.