REEL Review – Nomadland (2020)

Director: Chloé Zhao | 1h 48mins | Drama

After losing her husband and the town she once lived, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs up her belongings and starts living out of a van. On long the road, she meets numerous people who also live the “Nomad” lifestyle.

Other than her recently call up to the blockbuster landscape, Chloé Zhao has been working and thriving in the world of independent cinema – making films with distinct personality and a unique definition. Much like her 2017 film The Rider, Nomadland is working on a semi-fictional basis that effortlessly flows real people into a story that is poetically built on soul, understanding and a true American reality. 

The film is about Fern, a woman from a town called Empire in Nevada that unfortunately became a “ghost town” because of its economy wasting away. It’s the place in which she lived happily with her husband until he passed away, and in the opening scene we see Fern packing up a van and saying goodbye to any goods she can’t take with her. What follows is a gorgeous road movie, one that allows us to experience the “Nomad” lifestyle in its fullest capacity, a life that is constantly on the move but allows for such an open connection to the people you meet. 

On the road Fern goes to a sort of meet-and-greet for fellow “van-dwellers” where she learns the ins and outs of independent survival. They trade, eat and exchange laughs. But the crucial moment is when they all begin to share stories while sitting around a campfire, sharing the reason why they now live such an open and ever-moving lifestyle. While all varied, the common denominator among their stories is an escape from loss, something that’s soul-crushing to listen to when you understand the reality in each character. 

The fictional side of the film is woven delicately into the film’s realistic core, and it’s expressed through an authenticity that you’re likely not to see again. 

What makes Nomadland so rich with quality is how it balances reality with fiction. The real people give substance to Fern’s journey, and her arc is made all the more deeply effective because of the real story it’s portraying. Fern seems happy in a new life, but as she meets fellow traveller Dave (David Strathairn) she realises exactly what she’s running from; coming to terms with the loss of her husband and the place that she called home. The fictional side of the film is woven delicately into the film’s realistic core, and it’s expressed through an authenticity that you’re likely not to see again. 

The tenderness and understanding seeping through this film is channeled through the wonderful central performance by Frances McDormand. While most of her performances usually excel beyond measure, what she’s doing here is a little more complex than it first seems. She captures all the nuance and personality of her character, but more importantly she acts as a fly on the wall in the midst of the authentic people and events. She acts as a student and friend of the people she meets, and the camaraderie they share benefits from a genuine sense of understanding she has continuously. It’s difficult to compare the performance with any 2 of her previous Oscar-winning performances, but it’s safe to say her hat is firmly in the mix for the 2021 Best Actress Award. 

The film’s soundtrack is made of a collection of songs by the legendary Ludovico Einaudi, and it’s a soundtrack that profoundly changes every scene it accompanies. The simplest of shots are turned into deep reflective frames; casual conversation transformed into poetic commentary on the surrounding world and the film’s questions bubble to the surface with every melodic touch of the piano keys. The film’s strengths are far more vast than just it’s soundtrack, but Einaudi’s exquisite touch to each scene gives it much more gravitas and meaning.

Chloé Zhao is currently working on Marvel’s The Eternals, making the transition we’ve seen so many indie filmmakers make. But, before she makes the big budget jump, we can be forever grateful that she has given us another film with her distinct taste and style. With another class performance from Frances McDormand anchoring the film’s fiction, it’s Nomadland’s ability to weave in a documentary-style that makes it truly one of a kind.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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