Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Gay DeForest, Patricia Grier
Runtime: 1 hr 48 mins
Rating: M18 (Nudity)
Released By: Walt Disney
Opening Day: 18 March 2021
Synopsis: Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West.
‘Nomadland’ isn’t a film you should go into expecting to be wowed; those who do will undoubtedly find it a tough watch. Instead, this Golden Lion and soon-to-be-crowned Academy Award Best Picture winner from writer-director Chloe Zhao is a quiet, poetic and sobering portrait of personal and societal dislocation, a physical and psychological state which a growing number of American seniors find themselves in.
Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’, it is built as a character study around Fern, a fictional former resident of the company town of Empire, Nevada, which was shut down in 2011 and its population evicted within a year after the local gypsum mine and the Sheetrock factory was closed. Fern’s husband has passed, and the film starts with the widow packing her belongings into a white van she christens with the name Vanguard, hitting the road to join a dispersed tribe of Americans who work as seasonal migrant labourers throughout the country.
Evoking the nature of Fern’s life, Zhao employs a loose, episodic structure to tell her story. Each of the individual episodes adds its own flavour to the film. One of the early ones has Fern learning basic survival and self-sufficiency skills while joining a desert rendezvous led by Bob Wells, who through his Youtube channel has built a network and support system for fellow nomads. Another sees her becoming unlikely friends with a crusty older woman Swankie (Charlene Swankie), who refuses to let her life be dictated by her cancer diagnosis and embarks on her own journey to Alaska. Both Wells and Swankie are playing fictionalised versions of themselves, and these real-life nomads ensure that these encounters are as authentic as it gets.
No less convincing is the quiet, sensitive traveller Dave (David Strathairn) whom Fern first meets at Bob Wells’ rendezvous and thereafter when she takes up a job as camp host at the Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park. They strike up a friendship, but those looking for them to find love and settle down should probably not keep their hopes up – ‘Nomadland’ isn’t that sort of movie, or is Fern that sort of character. Who she is becomes clearer towards the last third, when she visits her sister’s (Melissa Smith) house out of necessity of borrowing money as well as when she opens up about her past life at a tribute for Swankie.
That we remain captivated by Fern even before we learn about what had led her to this journey of nomading is testament to Frances McDormand’s beautifully understated performance. Through a masterful combination of self-effacement and command, McDormand holds the screen with skill and sensitivity, reeling you into a character struggling to define her place in the world while holding her own with grit, independence and perseverance. There is absolutely no artifice to her portrayal of Fern, and it is indeed to her credit that she blends perfectly in with the rest of her nonprofessional actors as they tell their stories.
The accomplishment here belongs as much to McDormand, who also produces the film, as it does to Zhao. As with 2017’s ‘The Rider’, the Chinese-born, American-based filmmaker has once again demonstrated her grasp of a unique hybrid fiction-nonfiction form of storytelling, applying it to let the community of homeless and rootless people whom American society has failed to tell their story. While some have chosen to live such a life by choice, others have been cast into the itinerant lifestyle by circumstance due to unemployment, broken marriages, lost pensions and collapsing home values, getting by through seasonal work at Amazon warehouses during the winter holidays and national parks in the summer months.
So like we said at the start, ‘Nomadland’ isn’t meant to be gripping or compelling; rather, it aims to open your eyes, mind and heart to the dispossessed and left-behind in the modern American West. The geographic settings are magnificently captured by Zhao’s frequent collaborator Joshua James Richards, but against it is a simple, observant and contemplative piece of cinema that illuminates the plight of those left behind in the wake of the Great Recession. It is happy and sad, moving yet unsentimental, gentle yet powerful; it will stay with you long after the credits roll, because it ultimately is a reflection of how broken America is today.
(Poetic, elegiac and beautifully understated, this portrait of the dispossessed and left-behind in the modern American West is so real it will stay with you long after the credits roll)
Review by Gabriel Chong