Release Date – 30th April 2021, Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 47 minutes, Director – Chloé Zhao
After her husband passes away and work appears to instantly vanish from around her, Fern (Frances McDormand) turns to living life roaming around America in her new home, her van.
As with her previous feature, 2018’s excellent The Rider, writer-director Chloé Zhao demonstrates within awards favourite Nomadland an ability to make place feel like a calming presence, a character itself, while becoming a part of character identity. For Fern (Frances McDormand) this isn’t one specific place. We follow her as she travels across America in her van as she joins the nomad community following the death of her husband. With work having dried up due to the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada closing down in 2008 and having a knock-on effect that led to the postcode of the town being removed in a matter of months, she takes seasonal and part-time jobs wherever she can find them. Meanwhile, in the evening’s, she grows bonds with those around her, some of whom have been on the road for many years, exploring the seemingly infinite world of deserts, parks and plains that surround her.
While a small and quiet film, Nomadland is undeniably made for the big screen. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures an entrancing world of sweeping landscapes made up of dark pastel-like colours, giving you a front-seat view to the seemingly picture-perfect views of the likes of Arizona, South Dakota and even the cold winter of Nevada. And yet, all of the visuals simply enhance the lives and stories of the cast on show – a number of whom are non-acting nomads themselves, telling their genuine stories. It’s a personal piece and that comes across in the time that the film gives to tell a tale, time can be paused just to give someone the space to breathe and recount how they found themselves where they are, or to give advice to Fern. You’re equally captivated by such conversations and form a bond with each figure as they expand the world that Fern has entered and begins to find a piece of herself within.
Themes of loss, isolation and community which would already have an atmospheric care to them are perhaps heightened by the events of the past year. Zhao’s gentle touch helps to make the film even more accessible, she wants you to connect with McDormand’s finely performed character – one of subtlety and restrained emotion. By focusing on her and how she develops in her surroundings, both in terms of scenery and people, rather than a major plot there’s a more personal note to the piece as a whole – much as was the case with The Rider. During certain scenes the film almost begins to feel like a documentary – apparently a style that was aimed for during production – simply observing the goings on of a little-seen group in America.
While plot does slightly rear it’s head into the later stages of the film, to begin to round up Fern’s development and journey, or perhaps simply escape; whether from or into something is for the viewer to decide, it’s nothing to distract or take away from what the film has established up until this point. If anything this is just one scene that continues to work within the film and progress Fern as an emotionally engaging, and at times privately conflicted, character. It’s not just her who acts as the core of the film. It’s the community she finds herself opening up to, become further a part of because of this, and the environments they travel throughout. It’s a true escape not quite into another world – although the scenery might seem like it sometimes – but into another perspective, one that grows and changes and develops as we here more from those around her. Zhao’s effective direction emphasises so much while still managing to create a calm and thoughtful piece of explorative work into character and identity within community.
Chloé Zhao seamlessly roots character into wonderfully shot place with the most subtle of details, paired with Frances McDormand’s excellent lead performance and the stories of those around them Nomadland is a personal character tale of multiple calmly dealt with journeys and discoveries.