Americans have a blind spot when it comes to the plight of other citizens. Too many folks like to say they care about people, but when it comes to actual change, complacency sets in. In numerous cases, it centers around creature comforts. The “American Dream” tends to revolve around what you can ultimately own. Take away those items and many would be lost. Somehow, however, choose to give it up, living a different kind of existence. Nomadland is a tribute to this. Chloe Zhao, in many ways, is a poet laureate when it comes to depicting Americans on the other end of the “American Dream” spectrum, with this film serving as her best work yet. A heartfelt tribute to nomads, it also has pointed things to say about life in the United States and how workers are treated. The results are something special.
Nomadland could easily have been adapted from a Bruce Springsteen song, so true is it to the plight of the working man and woman. Zhao, adapting the book by Jessica Bruder, never judges her characters, merely observing their plights, but her take on the issues at hand is always clear. It’s a deft touch that too few filmmakers have, but boy does Zhao have it in spades.
One of the year’s prime bits of Oscar bait, Nomadland is not your usual prestige player. Sure, Frances McDormand is the lead and she’s a legitimate A-lister, but this has much more in common with Zhao’s prior effort The Rider. Seeing this one presented as a Best Picture player is a sign of the changing times. Slowly, but surely, the Academy is paying attention to new kinds of movies.
Taking place during the Great Recession, Fern (McDormand) is forced to live out of her van when her company town of Empire, Nevada collapses and essentially ceases to exist. Once living a simple yet happy life with her husband, she’s now a widow without a clear path forward. Traveling to a temporary job at an Amazon factory, Fern makes ends meet as best she can, moving on when the work ends, living her life as a modern day nomad. Traveling through the American West, she meets like-minded nomads like Linda (Linda May), Swanky (Swanky), and Bob (Bob Wells). They’ve chosen this lifestyle, and while Fern hasn’t fully, she’s committed to seeing it through and not asking for any help.
Determined not to let her situation get the best of her, Fern struggles, while bonding with the people she meets along the way. In particular, Dave (David Strathairn) intrigues her, though her commitment to the nomad way of life stays true. Even when her van needs work and she has to re-enter society for a favor, her discomfort with creature comforts is evident. This isn’t a woman who rejected them outright, however. Society rejected her first.
Frances McDormand is tremendous here, turning in work that shows a whole new side of her. Tender yet tough, she’s a quietly compelling character to follow for about 100 minutes. She’s in ever scene, onscreen for nearly every moment, and you’re immediately keen to travel with her. Little things, like the way she addresses people, or how she hugs an article of clothing her late husband clearly wore, cut to the core of who she is. Supporting characters like the real nomad Linda May and character actor David Strathairn do their jobs well, but this is all about McDormand.
Chloe Zhao chronicles the American working class with the same empathy as Springsteen, albeit more of the frontier type. Here, she executes with even more effectiveness than the already successful The Rider, which is saying something. Her writing, directing, and editing are all superb, with the visuals supported by returning collaborator Joshua James Richards. Zhao never calls attention to her style, but it’s never far from your mind, so simple and so true is the work. If anything, the score by Ludovico Einaudi is the only element that’s traditional Oscar bait.
The awards conversation around Nomadland is almost besides the point. After all, art should speak for itself. However, the Academy Awards will surely take to this one, nominating McDormand, Zhao in multiple categories, and the Picture itself. More folks will likely check this one out because of the citations to come, but the work is strong enough to stand on its own, that’s for sure.
Nomadland is the best movie to play at NYFF this year (so far), as well as one of the better 2020 titles, overall. Anyone who was taken by Zhao’s prior flick will find this one just as impactful, if not more. Easily the darling of the festival circuit, its December general release can’t come soon enough. Trust me, folks, it’s worth the wait.