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nomadland review
When her company town dissolves, a woman hits the roads of America in search of work.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Chloé Zhao

Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells, Linda May, Charlene Swankie

nomadland poster

Chloé Zhao is the anti-Sacha Baron Cohen. While the British comic likes to set traps for Americans to bring out their worst tendencies, the Chinese filmmaker is only interested in exposing the goodness that dwells in the average American. Completely devoid of cynicism (which some critics have used as a stick to beat her with), Zhao's films remind us of the beauty of America, of its people and the enviable landscapes they occupy.

Zhao's first two films – Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider – saw the director embed herself among the inhabitants of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with non-professionals playing loose versions of themselves. For her third film she's off the reservation and venturing out onto the highways of the American West. But while she continues her technique of mining affecting performances from amateurs, she's now recruited Frances McDormand (or perhaps it's the other way around). If Zhao is cinema's equivalent of the folk chronicler Alan Lomax, think of Nomadland as Lomax heading into the Appalachians with Bill Monroe on hand to strike up bluegrass duets with the natives.

nomadland review

Inspired by Jessica Bruder's book 'Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century', Nomadland immediately draws parallels between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008. A casualty of the latter is Empire, Nevada, a company town which ceased to exist in 2011 when the company went bust, forcing its inhabitants to leave the area. McDormand plays a fictional Empire citizen, Fern, a widowed sexagenarian who loads up a camper van with essentials and some items of sentimental value, and hits the road in search of seasonal work wherever she can find it.

Fern's first stop is a giant Amazon distribution centre. Some critics have chastised Zhao for not commenting on that company's shameful treatment of its staff, but Zhao isn't interested in politics, only people, and she plays people like a great bandleader with McDormand as her chief soloist. McDormand disappears flawlessly into the role, but perhaps what's most impressive is how comfortable the amateurs she shares the screen with seem in her presence. There's one marvelous moment where real life nomad Charlene Swankie chastises McDormand for being so badly prepared for a life on the road, as though she has no idea she's in the presence of one of America's most acclaimed actors. Perhaps she doesn't; it's easy to forget that McDormand might be an icon to cinephiles, but she's not exactly a household name like Julia Roberts. The idea of a Hollywood star living among the normies is fraught with potential for exploitation, but McDormand is one of the last American movie stars who looks like an American, and she appears genuinely touched by the people she meets and the stories they spin.

nomadland review

David Strathairn turns up as a nomad smitten by McDormand, but even he is outshone by the lived in authenticity of the amateurs we meet on the road here. Among them is Bob Wells, a guru figure who helps Americans who wish to up sticks and live the nomad lifestyle. His heartbreaking monologue regarding his inspiration for becoming a figurehead for such a growing movement will have you reaching for the Kleenex.

If you're like me, then nothing moves you more in movies than simple acts of human kindness. As with Zhao's previous films, Nomadland is practically pornographic in this aspect, filled with good people doing good deeds for one another. Every time you think things are about to take a dark turn the exact opposite occurs and someone steps in to help Fern, who isn't always appreciative of such assistance. There's a stubbornness to Fern, who prefers to freeze in the back of her van on a wintry night rather than accept the charity and shelter of others. I guess being thrown out of your home by the company that supported you for most of your life will do that to you.

nomadland review

Nomadland doesn't exactly sugarcoat life on the road, with its problems of how to get rid of human waste and deal with adverse weather. Nevertheless, it makes Fern's lifestyle enviable. She may have to forego niceties and comforts, but she has the freedom of a cat disappearing over a garden wall after emptying a bowl of food. And if you have to take a shit in nature, there are far worse parts of the world you could do it in than the Dakotas, whose stunning landscape is captured beautifully by Zhao's right hand man, cinematographer Joshua James Richards.

Zhao's third film might contain concessions to mainstream filmmaking, including an unnecessary but unobtrusive score by Ludovico Einaudi, but Zhao largely eschews narrative in favour of mood. At one point Fern recites a poem to provide some brief comfort to a troubled young man she encounters, and though he likely doesn't understand the words, they make him feel something regardless. Zhao is as poetic a filmmaker as it gets, the closest to a John Ford figure we have today; and like that great American master, she knows where to find poetry in America, in its people and its panoramas.

Nomadland is on UK/ROI VOD/Digital now.

2021 movie reviews