It’s an impressive thing, when a filmmaker is able to make the unremarkable things in the world seem remarkable. In a sense, that’s what “Nomadland” is all about; director Chloé Zhao has woven a simple story about what extraordinary things can be found in the ordinary, what kindness can be found in strangers and what beauty there can be in an often cruel and unforgiving world.
“Nomadland” doesn’t follow a typical narrative structure; Fern (Frances McDormand) has sold her house and possessions following the death of her husband and the impact of the 2008 recession on her small town, and now lives as a “nomad”, living in a campervan and going wherever the road takes her. The film follows a few months of her life as she travels across the American mid west; we encounter the colourful characters she encounters, sympathise with her when times are tough, sit with her as she boils her noodles on her little stove and hold our breath when she visits the undisturbed and awe-inspiring beauty of the American desert.
Chloé Zhao has a good chance for Best Director at the Oscars this year, having won both Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Directing at the Golden Globes. Visually, the film is beautiful and the cinematography in particular is incredible, following on with the story’s theme of finding beauty in unexpected or unexplored places. The camera sits right up front with the film’s subjects, so closely that we can see the kindness in the crinkles at the corners of their eyes and the weathering of their skin from being out in the sun. The soundtrack by Ludovico Einaudi is particularly moving and often quite intense, especially when Fern is alone with nature or reflecting upon one of the many breathtaking sunsets. The script has been beautifully crafted and is incredibly authentic, aided by the fact that a number of the supporting cast were real life “nomads” who are playing fictionalised versions of themselves.
McDormand too is in the running for an Oscar for her performance here; this is an incredibly stripped back performance from an extraordinarily talented and insightful actress. Fern is guarded and reserved, she doesn’t let people in and there’s an understated quality in McDormand’s performance which reflects this. There’s nothing in this role that suggests that Fern isn’t as much a part of this world as those people in the film that have literally been plucked out of it.
Many of the characters have experienced hard lives which have often been marred by tragedy, and are living the way they do often out of necessity but come to enjoy the sense of friendship that comes with such a community. What’s interesting is that Fern isn’t there out of necessity; she is lucky enough to have friends and family who offer for her to live and build a life with them, opportunites many of the nomads she encounters along the way would jump at. Fern isn’t doing what she’s doing because she has no other choice, she’s doing it because she’s terrified of the responsibility that comes with relationships and the fear of being abandoned or hurt herself. Fern isn’t supposed to be an honourable or virtuous person, she’s just a person and people don’t always do what is best for them or do what is best for others. She seeks a life of isolation, even if it comes as the expense of the people in her life who care for her and can offer her stability and fulfilling relationships. This is a scary thing for her, and she is prepared to sever ties and hurt people to protect herself.
“Nomadland” is a film which takes its time, allowing us to become fully immersed in the lives of the characters, without passing judgement on them or their choices, but instead providing its audience with a window into their lives. It’s a film about life, in all its wonder and imperfection; its both beautiful and tragic, unsettling and illuminating, reminding us of both the joy in the world and the heartache.
By Jock Lehman