After much fanfare, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland took home 3 Oscars at this year’s ceremony. A contemplative piece on a forgotten part of American life, the film eschews traditional story narratives in favour of chronicling a series of meetings that its central character has on her journey. The effect is as beautiful as it is compelling.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow in her early 60’s who has lost her job to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. After investing the little money she has left in a van she lives out of, she meets up with a support group and community of fellow nomads in the Arizona desert. From there she goes wherever weather or work takes her, and the film is effectively a character piece that immerses us in Fern’s world.
McDormand is tremendous, playing a far more understated character here than in her two previous Oscar wins for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri respectively. She mesmerises by slipping seamlessly into the nomadic community the film portrays. While not showy, there is an underlying trauma and pain that Fern struggles to come to terms with over the course of our time with her. McDormand manages to convey a whole life with a wry smile and earns every bit of her 3rd Oscar (As a producer of the film that also won Best Picture she now has 4).
Zhao smartly populates most of the main cast with real life nomads themselves. Other than David Strathairn of Bourne Trilogy fame, the people we see on screen live the life they portray, and the authenticity gained from this oozes from every dialogue. All the pain, hurt and profound appreciation for life leaps off the screen as Fern travels across the American Badlands from place to place.
The leader of the support group is Bob Wells, a real life nomad youtuber with over 500,000 subscribers. He along with Linda May and Charlene Swankie all deal with their own pain and mortality in different ways, and their encounters with Fern form the backbone of the movie. The monologue delivered by Swankie on her mortality is staggeringly good and without doubt the best scene of the film. All of these people are caught out in this world between gaining true freedom while also feeling estranged from the world around them.
Zhao cleverly juxtaposes the part time work Fern struggles to get with Amazon at the height of the fallout of the recession with the near poverty faced by these nomads left behind by the supposed American Dream. The film arguably could have hammered this narrative home further, however it opts instead to focus on Fern and her struggle to get by.
It won’t be for everyone; despite its relatively short run time the film is very slow so as it immerse the viewer into Fern’s world. Coupled with terrific cinematography and regular periods of silence this produces truly beautiful moments akin to a classic Terrence Malick film, however to some viewers wanting more in the way of plot or action this film will come across more as a documentary at times. Perhaps that is a better way of describing the movie. It does not seek to dress things up. Life for these nomads is as unglamorous as the setting is spectacular.
What this pacing does do however, is allow Zhao to serve up a series of encounters to Fern that impact her on her journey as she comes to terms with her circumstances. While not totally satisfactory in outcome, there is the sense by the end Fern has come full circle, her convictions strengthened, and maybe just maybe, time to finally let go.
We may not know what comes next, but as the nomads say, we’ll see them down the road.