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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Nomadland

Featuring an exceptional performance by Frances McDormand, this deeply humanist road trip drama serves up a touching observational portrait of those that society happily overlooks.
By Sarah Ward
March 05, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
March 05, 2021
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Frances McDormand is a gift of an actor. Point a camera her way, and a performance so rich that it feels not just believable but tangible floats across the screen. That's true whether she's playing overt or understated characters, or balancing those two extremes. In Fargo, the first film that earned her an Oscar, McDormand is distinctive but grounded, spouting midwestern phrases like "you betcha" but inhabiting her part with texture and sincerity. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, her next Academy Award-winning role, she's an impassioned mother crusading for justice and vengeance, and she ripples with deep-seated sorrow mixed with anger so fiery that it may as well be burning away her insides. Now, in Nomadland, McDormand feels stripped bare and still a commanding force to be reckoned with. She's tasked with a plucky but struggling part — defiant and determined, too; knocked around by life's ups and downs, noticeably; and, crucially, cognisant that valuing the small pleasures is the hardest but most rewarding feat. It'll earn her another Oscar nomination. It could see her nab a third shiny statuette just three years after her last. Both are highly deserved outcomes because hers is an exceptional performance, and this is 2020's best film.

Here, McDormand plays the widowed Fern — a woman who takes to the road, and to the nomad life, after the small middle-America spot where she spent her married years turns into a ghost town when the local mine is shuttered due to the global financial crisis. A slab of on-screen text explains her predicament, with the film then jumping into the aftermath. Fern lives in a van that has seen better days, but she's spent so much effort customising the inside that she's reluctant to part with it. She works hard wherever she can, be it an Amazon warehouse in the pre-Christmas rush, a trailer park over its busy summer season, or a restaurant job she lucks into thanks to a new friend (David Strathairn, Godzilla: King of the Monsters). She's qualified to do far more employment-wise, but the post-GFC recession has wiped out most options, so she's doing her best to get by as she can. She drives wherever she has to in order to earn the most modest of livings, and returns to any gig possible when the time cycles around. This isn't the life she dreamed of, but it's the one she has.

Nomadland follows Fern over the course of more than a year, chronicling the 60-something's travels — the jobs, the places and the people she meets. When asked, she's quick to stress that she isn't destitute, and that not having a house isn't the same as being homeless. Based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, that's one of the film's most valued ideas. Indeed, while McDormand convincingly steps into the fictional Fern's shoes, she also leads a cast that includes real folks experiencing the existence portrayed within Nomadland's narrative. Seen on-screen as themselves, Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells couldn't be more organic and authentic as a result, but this movie earns those terms several times over anyway. Writer/director Chloe Zhao is known for this approach, using non-professional actors in 2015's Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017's The Rider as well. She's also known for making movies driven by pure empathy and compassion, and Nomadland's observational portrait of those that society happily overlooks overwhelmingly fits the bill.

A deeply humanist road trip drama that ponders home, identity and community, Nomadland is intimate and almost disarmingly tender and thoughtful, as every movie made by Zhao proves. Those traits mightn't carry over to her next release — 2021's Marvel flick Eternals, which'll see her operating on a much different scale — but they're the reason that she's the filmmaker she is. No one else could've made this movie, even with McDormand as its lead. The cinema industry isn't lacking in talented directors, but no one else would've seen Fern, her transient life, and the ebbs and flows she navigates in the same way. Zhao truly sees everyone in her frames, be they fictional or real. She understands their plights, and ensures her audience understands them as well. Actually, one other filmmaker would've likely done as superb a job, because Debra Granik's 2018 drama Leave No Trace is the perfect companion piece to Nomadland — but Zhao's almost documentary-esque contemplation is all her own.

One shot, lensed as gorgeously and naturalistically as everything else within the film by Zhao's now three-time cinematographer Joshua James Richards, typifies this knockout movie's charms. Fern has to be coaxed into attending a meet-up with other nomads but, once there, she fits in with her fellow drifters as they attend informal outdoor seminars about vehicle maintenance and faeces disposal, share stories and swap unneeded belongings. One morning, Fern walks through the makeshift camp, and the camera follows her. It sits at shoulder level, so McDormand's face monopolises the centre of the frame, but her surroundings still peek in at the sun-dappled edges. It's a sublime example of visual storytelling, and a sequence so in tune with the figure it's gazing at that it's virtually staring into her soul. It instantly conveys how Fern holds herself as she makes her way through the world, too.

Meticulously crafted, filmed and performed — and with a resonant score by composer Ludovico Einaudi (The Third Murder) that lingers just as potently — Nomadland overflows with these types of moments. Each scene, no matter how routine Fern's acts and deeds might seem at any given second, unearths another sliver of her essence. Every sight, including all the natural wonders that America's sprawling expanse can serve up, has the same effect. Gleaming sunsets, winding roads, otherworldly rock formations, peaceful streams and various critters sighted aren't just background fodder here. Rather, they're used to relay Fern's inner radiance, twisty complexities, fluidity and adaptability, and unwavering strength. That's how layered Nomadland is, because its protagonist, those around her and their lives earn the same term — and Zhao never forgets that, or lets her viewers either.

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