A widow (Frances McDormand) in her sixties who, after her husband dies and town is eviscerated by the 2008 Recession, packs her life into a van and embarks on a journey across the American Midwest, living as a modern-day nomad. In her travels she encounters people at crossroads in their life, searching for love, enough money to get by, and a feeling of acceptance.
Winning Best Picture, Best Director, and an award for best lead performance at the Oscars; the holy grail for filmmakers, and a feat Nomadland achieved with aplomb.
There’s plenty to love about the film. The directing from Chloé Zao is impeccable, capturing the warm spirit of the road trip genre without ever feeling unoriginal. The story is sweet and simple, putting its characters front and centre. The lead performance from Frances McDormand earned her an impressive fourth career Oscar, capturing the dignified essence of a woman facing life anew. The score is breath-taking, taking Nomadland to new heights. It’s a true lesson in emotive filmmaking without needing to rely on a complex plot or special effects.
It took nearly two years for Zao to film Nomadland, with the cast and crew living on the road for much of that time. This journeying feeling, of a character and world on the move, is carried through the movie, providing a restless pacing that doesn’t need to be driven by a fast-paced plot or dialogue. Zao captures the beauty of the American West with melancholic beauty, the endless horizons and towering mountains every bit as much of a character as the people we meet on the road.
But for me one of the true highlights of Nomadland is the music. Ludovico Einaudi scores the film to perfection, with lilting piano underpinning the emotional moments and gentle bluegrass and country music carrying us along on the road. Adapted from a novel by Jessica Bruder (no relation), Nomadland is a true visual and musical achievement, an emotion-inducing trip into the heart of the decaying American dream.
Nomadland isn’t tied to any firm plot, much like protagonist Fern’s wandering across the Western US states. We follow her across a year as she travels from warm climes to cold and back again, letting the weather and work dictate her path.
Zao, who also wrote the script, give us enough about Fern’s life on the road, including her regular return to several seasonal jobs, to let us get to know the character without ever leaning too hard on her upsetting back story. We know she’s a widow, and that her town was shut after the Recession. But Nomadland is about lifting our spirits with the now, rather than focusing on the ghosts of the past. It’s a brave approach, and one that give the film real sweetness and life.
Frances McDormand does so much with so little in her lead role as Fern. The character’s quiet dignity in the face of a hard, uncertain life on the road is awe-inspiring, and McDormand excels in communicating this fragile warmth. Her chemistry with the rest of the cast is even more consider when you consider that many of the leading characters in the film, including Fern’s friends Linda May and Swankie, are played by themselves. Nomadland features a diverse cast of non-actors, mostly nomads invited on the road to lend the film authenticity, which makes the emotive performances all the more impressive.
A deserving Oscar winner, Nomadland lives up to every bit of the award-season hype without ever feeling made for a judging panel. You’ll be half convinced to pack up and hit the road yourself; Zhao just makes nomad life look so free.
Nomadland is so full of feeling that you can’t help but enjoy it. The film will lift you up, on the wings of Zhao’s directing and the beautiful score, and then ground you with McDormand’s earthy performance. 8/10.