A woman (Frances McDormand) embarks on a journey through the American West after losing everything during the recession.
I had been hearing a lot about Nomadland, with many declaring it as of the best movies of 2020, and a frontrunner for awards season. I heard about the premise and the type of movie it would be, I went into it preparing with the right mindset. Having seen it, I can say that it definitely deserves all the hype.
One thing to note is that Nomadland is not quite for everyone. Specifically, is fairly plotless and more character driven. We are just watching the lead character Fern (Frances McDormand) going on her journey of being a nomad. The writing is phenomenal across the board. One of the highlights of the movie is that it shows us a lifestyle that we don’t really get to see often, that of being a Nomad. While I’m not an expert on the subject, it has an authenticity to how it was portrayed. Nomadland is a story about real people and real stories. I really liked the stories we hear about from the side characters about what drove them to this life: people who lost someone and were using this life (through nature) to heal themselves, people who were treated poorly by life itself, etc. At times it felt like some scenes were taken straight from a documentary about nomads rather than a film, the way they were written and performed seemed so organic. This screenplay is full of many side memorable and heartfelt characters who leave their mark on the story and, more importantly, Fern (despite some only appearing for a scene or two). At its core however, Nomadland is a character study focusing on Fern, revealing itself as a portrait of a woman in deep loss to the point where normal life doesn’t make sense. It’s very reflective too, you can connect with everything that’s happening, even if you don’t relate to it. It’s an intimate (albeit still grand), resonant, real look into the loneliness that follows loss and grief. As I said, the movie is fairly plotless and there isn’t much driving the story, but sort of fitting. Like Nomads, we don’t know where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing in ten minutes when watching the movie. You get lost in the beautiful American landscapes and joined Fern on her literal and spiritual journey. So often you’ll be seeing Fern doing rather mundane things, but you are nonetheless invested in her journey. It might take a while for you to get into the movie, but I was invested very early on.
Frances McDormand is the main lead of the movie as Fern, the story of the movie is about her, and from beginning to end she gives a naturalistic performance. McDormand’s acting is very understated but flawless, being able to convey every emotion that Fern is thinking with just looks, and really captures this character well. It is a fantastic performance that most actors in this role would typically overplay, but McDormand plays this with subtlety. It is a strong contender for her best acting performance, and that’s saying a lot considering the work she’s delivered in the past. The supporting cast is great, consisting mostly of people playing nomads. David Strathairn is the most known actor of the supporting cast, but many of the other nomads are actually played by authentic nomads, and they perform their parts well too, especially opposite from McDormand.
Arguably, the true star of Nomadland is Chloe Zhao, who wrote, directed, produced, and edited this film, her fingerprints are all over this movie. I haven’t seen her previous movie The Rider but now I really want to because her work here is incredible. The movie is clearly crafted with such love and care, her direction is genuinely masterful, and she is more than capable of telling a story with just the movement of the camera. Throughout, Nomadland feels natural and personal, almost like a documentary. The direction did remind me a bit of Terrence Malick, but Zhao makes this style her own in a movie that needs this approach to make it as effective as it is. The cinematography is outstanding and beautiful from start to finish, especially with the landscapes that the movie takes many opportunities to really show off, such as the long tracking shots of Fern’s van driving long distances. However, it even makes things that should be boring and mundane to look at, say Fern in a laundromat, look outstanding especially with how everything is composed and framed. The score is sparse but does consist of tracks from Ludovico Einaudi, and they are fitting and perfect and add so much to the scenes they were used in.
Nomadland is a beautiful, quiet, heartfelt, and naturalistic character study. Frances McDormand gives a pitch perfect (and possibly career best) performance, and Chloe Zhao’s work here is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s definitely one of the best movies of the year and is worth going to watch, especially on the big screen if possible.