When I first saw director Chloé Zhao’s breakout 2017 film The Rider, I was impressed but it wasn’t until several months later when the full impact of the film sunk in. Halfway through her latest directorial effort I could tell I was in for a similar experience. Nomadland is a film that dwells on the small moments in life. There’s no huge, third act payoff or dramatic climax, rather we follow a year in the life of a woman as she moves from place to place simply living the life she has, taking pleasure in the little things and meeting friends new and old that impact her in different ways. I felt almost unplugged for the entirety of the hour and 47 minute runtime, like all the worries I’d been having just weren’t as important as I thought they were. That maybe life was just about those small moments and those connections we share with people. It was therapeutic. After the credits finished I was amazed by what I had just witnessed and how Zhao was able to paint such a moving picture of a woman's life.
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman who has taken up the lifestyle of a nomad after the collapse of the company that employed her and her husband before the Great Recession. I say “stars” but it hardly feels like she’s playing a character. If ever there was an actor that purely existed in the world they’re in, it’s McDormand here. That largely has to do with the casting choices made by Chloé Zhao. Save for McDormand and the character of Dave played by Daniel Strathairn the vast majority of the cast are not professional actors, following in the footsteps of The Rider, whose main cast consisted of people playing themselves, with the main actor playing a character that was based on himself and his own experiences. All the nomads seen throughout are real nomads that travel around the country just like their characters in the film. It’s more than just authenticity, it creates a natural environment for McDormand to thrive in. With the work she put in herself living like a nomad, sleeping in her van and even being so convincing as to have been offered a job at a Target intended for a real person in her situation. While the untrained actors may appear a bit stiff at times, or not quite as “normal” as we’re accustomed to seeing in movies, it actually allows us to see the characters the way Fern herself would’ve seen them. A little reserved, standoffish, and not immediately comfortable with a new person they’ve just met.
I feel as if McDormand has gotten the reputation of playing a hard ass on screen. Perhaps it’s just that her most recent non animated film role was her Oscar winning turn as the fearlessly independent Mildred from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri in 2017. Maybe it’s the contrast between the two characters, the rough, aggressive exterior of Mildred versus the equally fearless and independent but soft Fern. McDormand is given a role here where she can tap into a side of herself I haven’t seen before. Fern has built up a wall to protect herself from the real world but that wall comes down when surrounded by other people like herself. When she’s among the nomads that’s when she is at peace. There’s no 9 to 5, no rat race, just real moments between humans, and that vulnerability is a special thing that would be more difficult for actors of a lesser caliber.
Cinematographer Joshua James Richards made headlines recently for clapping back at Quentin Tarantino after Tarantino pronounced that “digital projection is the death of cinema.” Richards stated that digital is cheaper than 35mm film and oftentimes the only way for an indie director to shoot a film because of budget constraints. I think most would agree that shooting on film would be ideal and I’m sure if given the opportunity to shoot on film Richards would take it, but he’s right. Not every filmmaker under the sun is allowed a budget like Quentin Tarantino is, and with Zhao only now making a big name for herself there are certain limitations that come with the territory, digital being one of them. All that aside, I want to applaud Richards on what he was able to accomplish with Nomadland. His use of natural lighting coupled with the realism provided by the actors make the film feel almost like a home video. It’s magical what he was able to do with the midwestern landscape, from the snowy plains to the mountains and deserts.
I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the score by Ludovico Einaudi: nothing extravagant, mostly just piano, but it perfectly encompasses the feeling that the film is striving for and that is the ultimate goal of a score I think. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, and Einaudi understands that and delivers a simple yet emotional score that plays perfectly.
Nomadland really made me stop and think about life, and I know as time goes on it will only have a bigger impact on me. I do wish I had adjusted my expectations a bit before I saw it because going into a film knowing it’s an Oscar heavyweight sometimes sets the bar so high that you can’t help but be a little bit disappointed. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, but my expectations were a little skewed going in and I wasn’t prepared for just how emotional and moving of a film it would be. There were at least two times throughout the film where I found myself nearly in tears, not because I was sad, but because it was such a beautiful, bittersweet look at a life so different from mine. Chloé Zhao deserves all the praise for her work, and if she can survive the Disney gauntlet (she’s directing Marvel’s Eternals which is set to release in November) she could be looking at an extremely successful career as a filmmaker.
The film is currently available to watch in theaters or on Hulu. If you’re like me and you’re doing your best to prepare yourself for the Oscars ceremony on April 25th this is as good a place as any to start. After its Golden Globe wins, Nomadland looks like the frontrunner for Best Picture as well as Best Director, with Frances McDormand a lock for an acting nomination and possibly a win. See you down the road…