"Nomadland" Review: An inspiring tale of survival that presents the modern-day American West in a new light

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Writer Director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland has proven a hot favorite at this year’s awards season. In addition to two Golden Globe wins, the film has also received 6 Academy Award nominations to go with 7 BAFTA nominations. Nomadland premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Lion. It also won the People's Choice Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. The film tells the story of a woman named Fern (essayed by Frances McDormand) who embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad, after losing her job during the Great Recession when the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shuts down. Having worked there for years along with her husband, who has recently died, she decides to sell her belongings and purchase a van to live in and travel the country looking for work.

Zhao’s film is based on American journalist Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book titled “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” about the phenomenon of older Americans who, following the Great Recession, adopted transient lifestyles travelling around the United States in search of seasonal work. Nomadland’s cast features an interesting mix of actors and non-actors. Other than McDormand and David Strathairn (who essays the part of Dave in the film), the rest of the cast mostly consists of real modern-day nomads including Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, among others. Nomadland is an inspiring tale of survival that presents the modern-day American West in a completely new light.

Now, the story of making of Nomandland is no less interesting than the movie itself. Frances McDormand and Peter Spears (best known for being a producer on the 2017 film “Call Me by Your Name”) optioned the film rights to Bruder’s book in 2017. McDormand had just seen Chloé’ Zhao’s 2017 film “The Rider” which had impressed her greatly. In McDormand’s own words, “As a producer, I was drawn to this woman director who had used classically male, Western genre tropes to tell a universal story of triumph over adversity.” So she decided to approach Zhao about the project. She and Spears subsequently met with Zhao who agreed to write and direct the film for them.

Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker with a strong feminist voice, has made a name with her work in independent U.S. films. What she brings to American cinema is something very unique. Even when she is approaching subjects that are deeply American in nature she is able to approach them with a rare oriental sensibility. This rare amalgamation elevates Zhao’s cinema above the work of most of her contemporaries in the US. Also, there is great empathy and a sense of humility in her work that’s far removed from the kind of cinema that’s generally associated with mainstream Hollywood. Having already bagged the Golden Globe for the Best Director - Motion Picture, Zhao looks the favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing. Already, she has become the first Asian woman to get nominated in the category. Interestingly, Zhao’s success as a filmmaker is bringing her all kinds of offers from Hollywood. She is now set to embark upon a new journey with the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero film “Eternals”, slated to release in November 2021.

Zhao’s brilliant work as writer-director gets brilliantly complemented by actor-producer Frances McDormand (she becomes first actress to get nominated for acting and producing for the same film) whose brilliant performance is at the heart of Nomadland. She is so good in the film that it’s impossible to think of the film without her portrayal of Fern. Now, there is no denying that McDormand is a wonderful actress. Over the years, the two-time Oscar-winning actress has essayed several memorable characters in films such as “Almost Famous”, “Mississippi Burning”, “Fargo”, “North Country”, “Burn After Reading”, “Blood Simple”, “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, among others. But her pitch perfect performance in Nomandland is easily the finest of her career.

During the filming, McDormand lived out of vans over a period of four months with other crew members and real-life nomads and it shows in the manner she approaches the character of Fern. Having seen McDormand over the years, one can tell that it’s not really a veteran performer on display here. On the contrary, we get to see someone who is learning on the go. Perhaps, McDormand is leaning new methods to acting just as Fern is leaning basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road. In one of the videos available online, Chloé Zhao while narrating a scene from Nomadland, compares McDormand with Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin in the manner how she interacts with the space. There is a certain nonchalance with which she glides through the spaces and while Zhao’s comparisons are quite apt, I personally find her body language resembling even more closely to the late legendary Italian actress Giulietta Masina. Anyone who has seen Masina in films like “La Strada” (1954), “Nights of Cabiria” (1957), and “Juliet of the Spirits” (1965) can see the similarities between the two great performers who are separated by time, but united by their free-spirited performing styles.   

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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