Directed by Chloé Zhao. Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells.
The Plot: Fern (Frances McDormand) once had a home, a husband and a regular job. After the local mining company she worked for closed in the wake of the 2008 recession, her small Nevada town was decimated and she lost her home. Now she lives out of a van, working short-term jobs and wandering like a nomad through the mythical American West. Her American Dream has been shattered, but she’s putting the pieces back together again. She’s not alone out there. She meets a community of fellow nomads, including Dave (David Strathairn) and learns to live again…
The Verdict: That’s three for three for Chloé Zhao. The Beijing native is something of a nomad herself. Now transplanted to America, she’s making a name for herself as a director with an innate understanding of American society and what the American Dream means on a ground level. Her first two films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider captured an America that is little seen onscreen, focusing on decent salt-of-the-earth people living on the margins of society far from the glitz of Hollywood. She framed those characters against vast landscapes and moody skies, emphasising the primal connection between people and the land that sustains them. Her latest film Nomadland continues to build on the themes she’s exploring in her work and becomes her most accomplished film to date in the process.
Home is something you carry within you. Fern is told this early on in the film by a fellow nomad. Her physical home is her van, which she dubs Vanguard but her spiritual home is wherever her heart takes her. When she’s asked if she’s homeless, Fern says that she’s houseless which isn’t the same thing apparently. As the audience follows Fern on her meandering road trip stopping off at different places for the night and working different service-oriented jobs, it becomes apparent that finding a home is not the driving thrust of Zhao’s compassionate film. The film’s theme is about community, tracking that lost American generation from a decade ago who were forced out of their houses and onto the road. With nothing left to lose, the vast western desert and the sky beckon them like the wagon train pioneers before them. The film is ‘Dedicated to the ones who had to depart. See you down the road’.
Zhao’s inspiration comes from the book Nomadland: Surviving America In The 21st Century by Jessica Bruder. Zhao’s script takes a humanistic approach to Fern and her fellow nomads, underlining the need for kindness amidst a devastating recession which is just as relevant in an economy-ravaging pandemic. Fern is holding on to what’s left of her life in her van. Some might say that she’s surviving from hand-to-mouth, day-to-day. It’s clear though Zhao is painting a portrait of people who are also living and enjoying the freedom that an open road represents. Fern comes to realise that having a settled life may not be the be-all and end-all of life. There is more out there… down the road. The way that Zhao captures this is quite remarkable, using large brush strokes as she frames Fern against those vast John Ford-style canvases of the American West. The detail is eye-popping, sadly somewhat diminished on a television screen. This is why we need our cinemas back in business as soon as possible.
Having worked with non-professional actors up to this point, Zhao enlists the weighty Oscar-winning talent of Frances McDormand along with nominee David Strathairn. The duo blend in well with the rest of the cast who are actual nomads and locals, for that extra layer of authenticity. The pain of Fern’s story is etched on McDormand’s weathered face, particularly in a stunning, wordless sequence when she returns to her original home. It’s now a ghost town haunted by memories of its former residents, like so many other American heartland towns. While Zhao may not offer a neat resolution for Fern’s nomadic story, she returns to that theme of home being something you carry within you. An evocative road-trip movie like no other before it, Nomadland is a beautifully-realised portrait of the American Dream recalibrated for a lost generation. It’s visionary filmmaking from Zhao, with an appreciation for nature and the environment like Terrence Malick before her. Her maturation as a gifted filmmaker is complete in just three films. One can only be enthralled and intrigued to see where her cinematic journey takes her next… somewhere down the road.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
NOMADLAND will be available to watch in Ireland on Disney+ from April 30th and on cinema screens when Irish cinemas reopen
Nomadland (USA / Germany / 12A / 107 mins)
In short: Visionary filmmaking
Directed by Chloé Zhao.
Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells.