Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, ‘Nomadland’ is the Best Picture nominee that’s both timeless and timely

By Johnny Sobczak

March 20, 2021

At this point, going into Nomadland with tempered expectations seems like an exercise in futility. 

Chloé Zhao made waves with The Rider in 2017, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival and went on to be one of the year’s most acclaimed films. Hopes were suitably high for her follow up, an adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction novel that chronicles the phenomenon of older Americans traveling the American West and looking for work in the wake of the Great Recession. 

Frances McDormand and Director/Writer Chloé Zhao on the set of ‘Nomadland.’ Photo: Joshua James Richards

In the last few months, Nomadland has become the most acclaimed film of 2020. It started awards season by becoming the first film ever to win the top prize at both the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s been making history ever since. It went on to clean up awards with film critic groups around the country. Zhao became the second woman ever to win the Golden Globe for Best Director, and it will all culminate in an Academy Awards ceremony next month that has her poised to take home up to four Oscars– the most ever for a woman. It’s easy to see how this film might have a tough time living up to the hype. Thankfully, Nomadland is everything you’ve heard, yet so much more.

The story opens with Fern (Frances McDormand) bidding a teary farewell to a storage unit garage in the snowy Nevada countryside. Packing the rest of her life into a van, she sets off, and the film follows a year of her life on the road. It should be immediately stated that McDormand’s work here is some of the best of her career, and it seems only a monumental performance from Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman will be what keeps McDormand from a third Oscar win for Best Actress. Fern is temperamental, hilarious, kind, intelligent, but–above all– real. McDormand says more with a squint of her eyes and a shift in posture than most actors can with an entire monologue. She has always had a raw naturalism to her work capable of separating her from her more squeaky clean movie star contemporaries, and that’s utilized in a most devastating fashion in Nomadland

Frances McDormand as Fern in ‘Nomadland.’ Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The naturalist shades painted all over Nomadland only helped to elevate McDormand’s craft. Joshua James Richardson’s cinematography will be most talked about for the way it captures landscapes and vistas at the golden hour, but the documentary style he and Zhao use to capture the interiors of Amazon factories and trailers is equally impressive. When Fern and her fellow nomads are sitting in the campground and baring their souls, the camera feels intimate, not intrusive, with its closeness. The realism is amplified even more by the inclusion of real-life nomads into the cast, such as Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells. The three drift in and out of Fern’s life and vice versa. Their presence is filled with warmth and wisdom that illuminates the screen, and they’re missed when they’re gone.

David Strathairn features as the film’s only other true professional actor, and this is likely the performance of his career. His character of Dave latches onto Fern early on in the film, and their paths become entwined in a tender journey that serves as the film’s emotional core. Fern throws up a wall, and Dave tries to bring it down. Strathairn does well to match McDormand’s subtle energy, and the earnestness of his affection in such a low-key role results in one of the best supporting actor performances of 2020. Their companionship and Fern’s struggle grappling with it in the wake of losing her husband will tug at your heartstrings, if nothing else does. 

Frances McDormand as Fern and David Strathairn as David. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

While Nomadland is a deeply personal narrative, Zhao has a lot more on her mind than the struggles of one woman. The Great Recession setting has as much to say as any of the old souls who drift through it. Fern has worked her entire life: with her husband, as a substitute teacher, and as a store clerk. She’s told to retire, but her benefits wouldn’t be nearly enough to support her incredibly modest lifestyle. At one point, a woman tells Fern that her Social Security had nothing more than a few hundred dollars to offer once she finally dipped into it. 

Time and again, these nomads speak of decades of work, commitment to corporate America and the grinding machine of capitalism– yet here they are in the dust bowl of modern America, drifting from one minimum-wage job to another. Multi-billion dollar corporations got bailed out, but where was the safety net for those among us who were most vulnerable? 

Frances McDormand as Fran in ‘Nomadland.’ Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland is simultaneously timeless and timely, standing tall as both a stunning indictment of America’s broken systems and a beautiful memoir of a woman wandering through badlands. From Ludovico Einaudi’s somber, piano-heavy score to Zhao’s economical editing, this stands as one of the year’s best films from top to bottom and would be a deserving Best Picture-winner. 

Despite Zhao being nominated for a record number of Academy Awards and helming this year’s Eternals for Marvel Studios, Nomadland is a sign that the best is very much still to come for the 38-year-old filmmaker.

Watch the trailer for Nomadland, now streaming on Hulu.

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