Nomadland ★★★★½

This was one of my most anticipated films this year and being able to see it in a cinema in the last week of the year was another tick for things approximating our usual Christmas traditions.

Writer/director Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand met for the first time at an awards ceremony in March 2018 and began a four month shoot in September of that year.  The basic premise was drawn from Jessica Bruder’s multi-award winning non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017), which McDormand had optioned and pitched to Zhao.  However, it is also clear that Zhao took some of her content from the real-life stories of the non-professional actors she and McDormand met on the road in Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona and California.

McDormand plays Fern, a widow in her sixties, who puts most of her furniture and effects into storage after her husband’s death and the GFC economic collapse of her mining town in rural Nevada and heads off to live on the road in her old van, which she has customised to be her home.  As she tells several people, including family members, she is not homeless, she just no longer has a house.

As she travels looking for unskilled work to supplement her meagre savings (her two stints at Amazon in the run up to Christmas look much worse than her rural gigs), she meets a broad range of people who share their life stories with her.  There is also a beautifully nuanced running plot thread with Dave (David Strathairn) when their paths cross several times and who she ultimately persuades to settle down and repair his relationship with his musician son, James (David Strathairn’s musician son, Tay) whose partner is about to give birth to Dave’s first grandchild.

McDormand is sensational here and her expressive face and her posture convey so much more than her minimal dialogue.  While this is in no way Oscar-bait, surely she must get another nomination for this role.  The scenes between Fern and Charlene Swankie and Linda May and Carol Anne Hodge and Fern’s visit to her sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith), work as well as they do because underplaying them naturalistically allows the emotional content to emerge in a way that would feel manipulative in a more traditional treatment of this material.

Zhao’s regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards (who I had forgotten also shot God’s Own Country for Francis Lee in 2017), shoots glorious images of the natural landscape, especially sunrises and sunsets, but these are not just pretty wallpaper.  Despite some of the undoubted hardships of this lifestyle, the chance to see this natural beauty up close (many people would just fly over it) is a countervailing benefit.  Scenes where a bison runs along beside Fern’s car or where she skinny-dips alone in a rock pool both sustain her and link her back to what she loved about her kitchen in Nevada - because their house was on the outskirts of the town, the view from the kitchen window had nothing between her and the snow covered mountains in the distance.

The score, by Italian classical composer, Ludovico Einaudi, is used to underpin the action on the screen rather than telegraph expected emotions.  Beginning with a simple piano melody in Nevada, the subtle addition of further instruments, particularly the cello, suggests that Fern’s emotional life is richer for her experiences on the road.

Zhao’s previous features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) were also based on real life stories, combined narrative and documentary elements, and had characters playing close versions of themselves. Of the three, I think for now that The Rider works best, because its focus on Brady makes it tighter than the more dispersed stories in Nomadland.  However, this is a film I will be happy to come back to and may well find that additional half star on subsequent viewings.

Not surprisingly, the film has won 36 awards, including the Golden Lion at Venice this year.

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