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Review: Nomadland

Thomas Gonzalez reviews the harshness and beauty of Chloé Zhao's Oscar-winning portrait of America's tarmac hinterland

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Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand
Running Time: 1hr 50m
Rating: 12A

Auburn skies and bittersweet goodbyes. Nomadland is a film soaked in melancholic beauty. We follow the story of Fern (Frances McDormand,) a woman in her sixties who has lost everything in the aftermath of the 2008 Recession. Her husband, her house, her hometown and even her postcode were jettisoned into the ether of days gone by, leaving her with an insufficient pension to fund an early retirement. Faced with this abyss of lavender-scented memories, Fern is driven into a modern-day nomadic life of living in her van. She undertakes an odyssey across the West of the United States, bathed in the colour palette of the endless sky and the open road. Sound-tracked by rubber on tarmac and punctuated by the mundanity of odd-jobs.

Chloé Zhao’s influence on Nomadland is overwhelmingly impressive, so much so that I can imagine many aspiring directors leaving the cinema feeling inadequate in comparison. Zhao wrote, directed and edited the film. The danger in undertaking all three roles is that the finished product can end up feeling saturated with a singular influence. However, Chloé avoids this potential danger. The script feels honest. There are no clunky exchanges – there is more of a reliance on what is not said to bring the impact; resulting in a meringue-like lightness and delicacy. Many of Fern’s fellow wanderers are played by real nomadic travellers, giving the dialogue a real mumblecore, fly-on-the-wall feeling. The edit was well-seasoned, it didn’t feel as though specific shots that Zhao might have wanted to include were ham-fistedly placed in. It is therefore no surprise that she picked up nine separate major awards for her work on the film.

Nomadland carries a circular, cyclical trope throughout. This concept of the circle crops up throughout the film: wedding rings to washing machines, campfires to flat tyres. This image of a start points and end points eternally crossing paths appears to be a key coat-hook in the modern nomadic ethos. Each parting is a ‘see you down the road.’ Zhao’s directorial eye shines a light on those the world forgot as they tumble through this chiasmus of re-encounters. It is a story of returning to the point of departure. In chats with Zhao, Francis McDormand has discussed her compulsion to be around dirt as she gets older. She claims to have a desire to be surrounded by the thing that she, and we, will return to. Nomadland is a celebration of the circle.

Frances McDormand performs a fantastic tightrope act between solemn stoicism and welcoming warmth. A lot about Fern is told through the subtleties of her facial expressions – a wince here and an eyebrow raise there. She creates this character who is simultaneously threatening in her strength and equally vulnerable and open in her demeanour. The mixture of upbeat joviality and gritty tenacity makes Fern a character you want to get to know. She lives and breathes hustle, always ready for the next job and the next destination. It is certainly a stand-out performance from Frances McDormand; a performance recognised with an Academy award for Best Leading Actress – not to suggest that small men made of gold are the universal metric for who and what is good. I think it’s a good performance. Go see for yourself.

All in all, Nomadland is an emotional journey. It makes you take stock of all that you have and all that you could be left with if ones suddenly turn to zeros. It is a beautiful watch, with shots of snowy peaks on a canvas of purple sunsets, circling swallows and 80ft dinosaurs. It is cathartic and unorthodoxly uplifting. Being homeless and being houseless are two different things.

Editor's Note: Nomadland is available to stream on Disney+

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