Winner of this year’s Venice Film Festival, Nomadland is the latest naturalistic wonder from The Rider director Chole Zhao. An ascending auteur, Zhao has already established a distinct vision onscreen through her modest tales of modern American lore (she’s also dipping into Marvel tentpoles with her next project The Eternals). In her latest film, Zhao conveys another refined portrait that will surely resonant with Oscar voters.
Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who has been financially impacted by the Great Recession. In the search for her own sense of home, she embarks on a nomadic journey through the American west in her scantly-supplied van.
With Nomadland, Zhao continues to demonstrate her authentic voice behind the camera. Magnifying the plight of disenfranchised Americans lost through the widening wage gap and outsourcing of jobs, the writer/director cleverly employs a cast of non-actors to convey the lingering wounds left behind from the financial crisis. Many of the film’s marquee moments rely on their presence, portraying genuine sentiments centered around the aging nomads’ search for independence and self-actualization amidst their twilight years. Zhao’s embrace of a free-flowing structure allows these tender beats to register with raw, emotional impact. While the non-actors are superb, it’s impossible to discuss this film without highlighting Frances McDormand’s awards-worthy turn. The beloved stalwart seamlessly integrates herself into the character while extenuating her understated abilities in full force, fitting this film’s unique sensibility like a glove.
For a film that boasts quaint pleasures, Nomadland still reflects impressive prowess in its craftsmanship. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards breathes a poetic beauty into Fern’s odyssey, shooting the naturalistic environments with a balanced temperament. Among all of the richly textured locals, Richards and Zhao never forget to portray the harsh realities of this lifestyle, never sugar coating Fern and her peers in a simplistic folksy light. Ludovico Einaudi’s score hits the right notes with its low-key extenuation of dramatic beats, with the film thankfully never grasping for overly-theatrical moments.
Nomadland’s glowing reactions are certainly deserved, though there is an unevenness that held the film back for me. The first half truly excels, allowing audiences to marinate with the characters’ trials and tribulations through its uniquely authentic scope. Once the film starts introducing more narrative-heavy frames (David Strathairn plays an old nomad infatuated with Fern), some of the authentic charms dissipate as the screenplay suffers from some stilted frames. While it doesn’t deter Zhao and company from reaching a satisfying conclusion, there’s a sense that the film would’ve been better served by fully-embracing its ingenious core design.
That being said, Nomadland mines a poetic portrait from its well-textured subjects, showcasing writer/director Chole Zhao as a boundless talent with a bright future in the industry [B].
Written by Matt Conway