At this point, going into “Nomadland” with tempered expectations seems like an exercise in futility.
Chloé Zhao made waves with “The Rider” in 2017, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival and went on to be one of the year’s most acclaimed films. Hopes were suitably high for her follow-up, an adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel that chronicles the phenomenon of older Americans traveling the American West and looking for work in the wake of the Great Recession.
In the last few weeks, it has become the most critically acclaimed film of 2020 and the first to ever win the top prize at both Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. Just like that, this intimate indie production became an awards season juggernaut. Thankfully, “Nomadland” is everything you’ve heard, yet so much more.
The story opens with Fern (Frances McDormand) bidding a teary farewell to a storage unit garage in the snowy Nevada countryside. Packing the rest of her life into a van, she sets off, and the film follows a year of her life on the road. It should be immediately stated that McDormand’s work here is some of the best of her career, and it will require a truly monumental performance to keep her from a third Oscar win for Best Actress. Fern is temperamental, hilarious, kind, intelligent, but – above all – real. McDormand says more with a squint of her eyes and a shift in posture than most actors can with an entire monologue. She has always had a raw naturalism to her work capable of separating her from her more squeaky clean movie star contemporaries, and that’s utilized in a most devastating fashion here.
The naturalist shades are painted all over “Nomadland,” which only help to elevate McDormand’s craft. Joshua James Richardson’s cinematography will be most talked about for the way it captures landscapes and vistas at golden hour, but the documentary-style he and Zhao use to capture the interiors of Amazon factories and trailers is equally impressive. When Fern and her fellow nomads are sitting in the campground and baring their souls, the camera feels intimate with its closeness, not intrusive. The realism is amplified even more by the inclusion of real-life nomads into the cast, such as Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells. The three drift in and out of Fern’s life and vice versa. Their presence is filled with warmth and wisdom that illuminates the screen, and they’re missed when they’re gone.
David Strathairn features as the film’s only other true professional actor, and this is likely the performance of his career. Dave is a character that latches onto Fern early on in the film, and their paths become entwined in a tender journey that serves as the film’s emotional core. Fern throws up a wall, and Dave tries to bring it down. Strathairn does well to match McDormand’s subtle energy, and the earnestness of his affection in such a low-key role results in something close to Oscar-worthy. Their companionship and Fern’s struggle grappling with it in the wake of losing her husband will tug at your heartstrings, if nothing else does.
While “Nomadland” is a deeply personal narrative, Zhao has a lot more on her mind than the struggles of one woman. The Great Recession setting has as much to say as any of the old souls who drift through it. Fern has worked her entire life: with her husband, as a substitute teacher, and as a store clerk. She’s told to retire, but her benefits wouldn’t be nearly enough to support her incredibly modest lifestyle. At one point, a woman tells Fern that her Social Security had nothing more than a few hundred dollars to offer once she finally dipped into it.
Time and again, these nomads speak of decades of work, commitment to corporate America and the grinding machine of capitalism – yet here they are in the dust bowl of Modern America, drifting from one minimum-wage job to another. Multi-billion dollar corporations got bailed out, but where was the safety net for those among us who were most vulnerable?
“Nomadland” is simultaneously timeless and timely, standing tall as both a stunning indictment of America’s broken systems and a beautiful memoir of a woman wandering through badlands. From Ludovico Einaudi’s somber, piano-heavy score to Zhao’s economical editing, this is sure to stand as one of the year’s best films from top to bottom and will be a deserving Best Picture nominee.
Despite being poised for several Academy Award nominations and helming one of next year’s behemoth superhero films for Disney, “Nomadland” is a sign that the best is very much still to come for the 38-year-old filmmaker.
“Nomadland” releases in theaters December 4, 2020.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."