What does America’s great last frontier look like? Is it is merely a place, or has it become the person who travels it?
These are the questions asked by director Chloé Zhao and actress Frances McDormand in Nomadland, a presentation of cinema that feels like a new development in the art form, and which delivers an incredibly moving and powerful drama that will linger with you long after you leave the cinema.
Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything in the Great Recession of 2007-2009, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
Director Chloé Zhao offers a very simple, yet emotionally deep narrative in Nomadland, as she follows the film’s central protagonist, Fern (Frances McDormand), who travels across America seeking work and a new life having lost everything in the Great Recession of 2008. For Zhao, who is rapidly becoming a remarkable new voice in modern cinema, Nomadland is storytelling stripped back to its basic form of subject and setting. From its opening moments, you feel that this is going to be something completely different. And it is. Zhao shoots Nomadland in an almost documentary, point-of-view style, and she expresses her narrative through images over dialogue. Very little might be spoken, but much is said, and Nomadland is a deep metaphorical analysis of one person’s life in a changing world.
By its setting and time, Nomadland is a seminal piece of filmmaking, with its narrative commenting upon the decline of the American Dream, and the beginning of a new one. Notions of a career for life, a two-storied home with a white picket fence, and a dog sitting on the front porch where irreparably changed following the Great Recession, and for many, this was the beginning of something new. Zhao paints a portrait of a whole generation who had their livelihoods taken from them and who were forced onto the road and a new way of life. It’s a startling presentation of an ageing generation who have to find themselves again, and who set out on the road to do it. And Zhao presents this through honesty and understanding that is beautiful to watch.
Through everything that we see on screen in Nomadland, the happy and the sad, the challenging and the joyful, Zhao presents a very authentic and sincere portrait of Fern and her fellow nomads. And she is extremely empathetic to their journeys and the directions that their lives have taken. Her approach to capturing this is almost like a photographer, as she and McDormand embedded themselves alongside real-life nomads to capture their authentic experience. Zhao’s eye is exceptional in what she captures, and she pulls her audience into a new America that few have witnessed.
Fresh off her second Academy Award-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand has selected an incredible challenge in the character of Fern. Presented as an everywoman, who has suffered a great tragedy in her life, she sets out on the open road to live as a nomad, and undergoes an incredible growth of character, spirit and soul during the film’s narrative. In inhabiting the role of Fern, McDormand leaves all presence of herself behind and instead just exists as this one character. McDormand gives a raw and real performance as Fern and holds nothing back in presenting the life of a modern-day nomad, and this is very much the performance of her career.
Like Zhao, whom she has crafted a stunning partnership with, McDormand offers up an incredibly rich performance shaped by great empathy. She exists side by side with fellow nomads and as she has disappeared into the character of Fern, McDormand very much became one of them. She opens herself up to the audience with a beautiful performance of a character who has lost so much to ‘the American Dream’, but who now on the open road has the ability to live an authentic life that is true to her nature and character. McDormand is incredibly honest in her performance, and this honesty transcends itself from the screen to the audience.
The experience of Nomadland is one to be savoured by an audience. As a film that measures its narrative through images, over sound and dialogue, it is beautiful to look upon thanks to the talented eye of cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Through Richards’ visuals and Zhao’s direction, Nomadland captures a new, almost undiscovered frontier that has been left behind in America’s race to capitalistic supremacy. As Fern moves across the country in search of work and prospects, she takes time out to marvel at her great nation, and the sights and images that we witness are incredible to look upon. These images make the experience of Nomadland that much more involved and beautiful to view as an audience member, and the narrative is much richer because of them.
Nomadland is one of the most moving and important films to be released all year. It is a film filled with great empathy and a powerful narrative of discovery. Audiences will completely be pulled into the story of its central character’s search for a new life. In a year that has been so difficult for so many, pictures like Nomadland remind us that just down the road brighter times await and all we have to do is just keep driving towards them.
Image: 20th Century Studios