Director: Chloé Zhao
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells
Thus far in a relatively brief but exemplary career, Chloé Zhao has shown a tenderness and sensitivity to microclimates that typify the American Midwest. Be it the reservations of Songs my Brothers Taught Me or the close-knit rodeo bonds of The Rider, her approach has contrasted the poetry of the everyday with the incredible vistas that eclipse these sparse communities.
A similar preoccupation manifests throughout Nomadland though, as the title suggests, Zhao’s latest roams a little. This time, her quasi-documentary focus is on the ‘houseless’ (not homeless); those who have chosen to live out of vans and RVs on the fringes of society. And those who’ve been painted into that corner.
Set in 2011 at the tail end of the financial crisis, the film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman in her sixties who ups sticks when the Nevada mining community that previously supported her folds up. Eking an existence out of a van, Fran wanders the breadth of the Midwest, picking up short-term work where she can and maintaining a set of happenstance connections with some similarly nomadic characters.
It’s little surprise that Oscar looked so fondly on Zhao’s picture after the relative boldness and exoticism of last year’s Parasite win. Nomadland is about as American as pictures get; embracing the land’s natural beauty and the wherewithal spirit that the vast nation prides itself on. Still, this isn’t as safe a return to comfort as the above might suggest. Zhao’s film moves as freely as its inhabitants; collected moments that build a tapestry that almost feels like a throwback to the relatively formless tone poems that existed at the fringes of New American Cinema in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It isn’t standard Oscar fare, not strictly.
McDormand is mostly called upon as a sounding board for others; a selection of non-actors who genuinely live this experience; who tell their stories and reveal (intentionally or not) the authenticity of their guarded traumas. Working in direct opposition to real life, McDormand impresses quietly with her reactions and observations. Like a lot of people in this situation, Fran shoulders her own grief – she’s a widow – but this element isn’t overplayed. Sentimentalism skirts the edges of Nomadland, but it rarely takes hold in Zhao’s flighty journey.
Granted, when McDormand interacts with the film’s other notable, pared-down actor, David Strathairn, Nomadland veers a lot closer to traditional form. But these more structured moments of comedy, drama and furtive romance don’t interfere greatly with Zhao’s established modus operandi. As in her previous features, the mingling of the real and the imagined is deft and weightless. And also necessary. Fran is a person who has been through a lot of loss and has decided to salvage herself, often in solitude… or in the knowledge that solitude is only a short drive away. Dave (Strathairn) challenges this way of life by bringing the risk of a new and valued connection. The threat of closeness, and a reason to stay still.
Highlighting an America of great uncertainty, Zhao’s period piece resonates with our present, especially in the ways it views the gig economy and so-called unskilled work. It would be heartening to hope that the COVID crisis would lead to a wide reassessment of these roles; the wages they pay; the rights of the workers. Nomadland reminds us what short memories we have. That these questions have long-been relevant and skirted by those who’d rather the conversation was avoided. It’s not a grim look, but maybe a glum one.
Big name actors aren’t the only evolution in Zhao’s work presented here. The music of Ludovico Einaudi is full-bodied and dominant in Nomadland‘s more thoughtful stretches, encouraging and rousing us to a kind of direct emotional attachment to the America portrayed. Her most high-profile work to date is also her most attentive to the needs of a wide audience. Given that her next feature is for Marvel, one hopes sincerely that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Zhao’s particularly humane eye. It’d be a great loss if that were the case.
If Nomadland strikes a cord for it’s docudrama flourishes, allow me to make a recommendation: Gianfranco Rosi’s 2008 documentary Below Sea Level, which spends time with the residents of California’s nomadic refuge ‘Slab City’. Here you will meet a further array of wounded individuals carving out a truly alternate lifestyle on the edges of society.