REVIEW – ‘Nomadland’ proves a film is not required to be loud to be powerful

American cinema has its daring heroes and its dastardly villains, but the most interesting films often focus on those folks simply living an unextraordinary life. The quest to achieve the American Dream forms a central conceit of many of these films, but what of those who’ve chosen a different path? It’s here in this underrepresented cinematic world that auteur-in-the-making Chloé Zhao lays her scene. Amongst the ghosts and ruins of the American Dream lies Nomadland, a stunning portrait of a subculture cinema has yet to touch.

As writer, director, producer, and editor, Zhao crafts an intimate character study of one woman’s unexpected journey through a nomadic lifestyle with boundless potential and unforeseen struggles. Led by a sublime performance by the ethereal legend that is Frances McDormand and dotted with a fascinating supporting cast of non-actors, Nomadland quietly grabs your heart and refuses to let go. A special film that’s completely unforgettable, it’s one of the year’s very best and a sure-fire awards season contender.

Based on Jessica Bruder’s novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao begins Nomadland with a brutal title card recounting the plight of the small town of Empire, Nevada, which essentially vanished from the map in 2011 after the United States Gypsum Corporation shut down its sheetrock mine and closed its plant. The local ZIP code was discontinued and the town’s residents were forced to pack up and vacate due to the fact the company owned their homes.

One such resident is Fern (a phenomenal McDormand), a hard-working 60-something widow who had lived her entire adult life in Empire before it became a ghost town. With no choice but to live out of her RV (“I’m not homeless. I just don’t have a house.”) she’s christened Vanguard, Fern adopts a semi-nomadic life, as she hustles from part-time job to part-time job while travelling through the American West.

Along the way, Fern befriends fellow societal outcasts who’ve been equally affected by America’s crippling recession. While new friends like the curmudgeonly Swankie (Charlene Swankie), the sweetly Linda (Linda May), and silver-haired fox David (David Strathairn) have contently committed to the nomad lifestyle, Fern is still finding the independence of her unplanned situation both freeing and limiting.

Much like Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s equally-brilliant snapshot of American life, Nomadland proves a film is not required to be loud to be important or powerful. Zhao completely rejects the temptation to add any semblance of melodrama to her quiet, observant, unassuming work. By presenting Nomadland in a style almost akin to an observational documentary (which is only intensified by the use of non-actors outside McDormand and Strathairn), Zhao delivers a tender, captivating introspection of the human spirit that’s one of the most incredibly genuine films of the year.

While the protagonist of Minari desperately sought to attain the American Dream, Fern and her fellow nomads have seemingly accepted it’s a goal not worth chasing. Or, more accurately, one that’s simply not within the reach of anyone outside the 1%ers. The nomadic lifestyle has rarely been captured on film with such dignity, poignancy, and humility. There’s not a trace of sorrow in the way Zhao has presented who these people are and how they live. She’s deftly avoided the pitfall of nauseatingly attempting to draw sympathy from an audience because people like Swankie are uninterested in your pity.

It’s abundantly clear how Zhao intimately cares for these characters. In her capable hands, they are safe to share their stories and bare their souls. While Nomadland carefully avoids glorifying the nomadic lifestyle, it quietly celebrates this unexposed subculture filled with society’s afterthoughts. It’s a balanced film that highlights the freedom of being the master of your own destiny while never shying away from showing the difficulties of such an uncertain path. These are people capitalist America tossed aside. Rather than wallow in misery, they’ve taken control of their lives and sought happiness in their own unique way.

At the centre of everything is Fern and the raw, empathetic performance from McDormand, who could very easily waltz off with her third Academy Award for Best Actress come April. It’s a transcendent performance where McDormand effortlessly blends into the nomadic world like she’s always been there. Fern is tough yet vulnerable with a captivating stoicism of a woman attempting to keep it all together while still grappling with the grief of her husband’s death and the loneliness of the open road.

In McDormand’s very first scene, Fern discovers a workshirt belonging to her late husband and hugs it tight to her chest, and you instantly understand everything this unique protagonist is feeling. Few actors could carry the weight of appearing in every single scene of a film, but McDormand handles it with the aplomb we’ve come to expect. It’s a subtle performance light on dialogue, but McDormand echoes Fern’s every emotion through her eyes and the simple act of intently listening and observing everything occurring around her. In just 108 minutes, McDormand sells Fern’s entire history with a lived-in performance that may be the best thing she’s ever delivered. And that’s saying something.

As we’ve seen with Zhao’s The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, she’s a filmmaker intent on capturing the stories of the every-day, working-class American in rich detail and deep authenticity. Nomadland is another deceptively simple tale, but it’s one that’s so beautifully crafted it simply doesn’t need dramatic complications to land an impact. Zhao has written a slow-burn, contemplative character study that explores trauma and pain without the maudlinism that so often damages narratives of this style. Nomadland is yours to interpret, and Zhao never once attempts to manipulate your emotions, which is so exhilaratingly refreshing.

By editing the film herself (is there anything she can’t do?), Zhao is in total command of the construction of her masterwork. She’s purposely cut Nomadland like a documentary that focuses on the minutiae of Fern’s daily life while also exploring the vast environments of each stop along her journey to nowhere. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards vividly captures stunning landscape images of the American West that consistently exploit the gorgeous natural light of dawn and dusk. Zhao often frames McDormand in the middle of her expansive surroundings but understands the immense power of close-ups for the narrative’s more intimate moments.

It’s becoming increasingly likely Nomadland is set to sweep awards season and quite possibly dominate the Academy Awards, and so it should. It’s a remarkable film deserving of all the accolades coming its way. Zhao has crafted one of the year’s most delicately compelling wonders. Nomadland gives deep deference to those our society often refuses to acknowledge. These characters may be the victims of an economy that dealt them an impossibly tough hand, but Zhao’s beautiful portrait of the human condition reminds us of the sweet lemonade that can be made from the bitterest of lemons.

Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Melissa Smith, James R. Taylor Jr., Emily Jade Foley
Director: Chloé Zhao
Producers: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao
Screenplay: Chloé Zhao
Cinematography: Joshua James Richards
Production Design: Joshua James Richards
Costume Design: Hannah Logan Peterson
Editor: Chloé Zhao
Music: Ludovico Einaudi

Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: 26th December 2020 (Australian preview season), 4th March 2021 (Australia)