“Nomadland”, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and then the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in last September, is simply extraordinary in its seemingly plain and simple presentation of a certain interesting American lifestyle. As its apparently ordinary heroine moves from one place to another, this exceptional movie freely rolls along with her while totally free of conventions and clichés from the beginning to the end, and the overall result is a vivid and sublime slice of life which will grow on you more and more after its very last shot.
At the beginning, the movie gives us a little background information on how Fern (Frances McDormand) came to lead a nomadic life on her own. This middle-aged woman lived with her husband in a real-life town named Empire, Nevada for many years as they respectively worked in the US Gypsum plant in Empire, and she continued to work and live there even after her husband died and she was left alone. However, unfortunately, the plant was shut down in 2011 due to an economic reason, and everybody including Fern eventually left the town, which consequently became empty in addition to losing its zip code later.
While she is now living inside an old van after selling most of her belongings, Fern feels mostly fine with her current status, and we soon see her working at a local Amazon fulfillment center along with many other employees including Linda (Linda May), who has also lived in her own van just like Fern. At one point, Linda suggests to Fern that she should go to a desert rendezvous spot in Arizona for people like them, and Fern is not particularly interested at first, but she later decides to go there when the weather becomes too cold for her not long after her Amazon employment period is over.
At that desert rendezvous spot, Fern meets a number of various people including Bob (Bob Wells), who is the de facto leader of this meeting. He and other fellow nomads surely have lots of things to impart and teach to beginners like Fern, and one of the most amusing moments in the film comes from when one of them cheerfully talks about how to handle the defecation inside van. As a matter of fact, the movie subsequently shows us Fern suddenly having to deal with the call of nature inside her van, and I must say that this is as memorable as a similar scene in Wim Wenders’ “Kings of the Road” (1976), though it thankfully does not show details much in comparison.
As Fern keeps moving with more experiences, the screenplay by director/co-producer/writer/editor Chloé Zhao, which is based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”, leisurely and thoughtfully glides from one small personal moment to another. There is a little poignant moment between Fern and an old lady who is still full of life despite not having much time for her life, and, as the camera phlegmatically focuses on her face, you may find yourself transfixed by this old lady’s calm but sincere description of a certain mesmerizing moment she once experienced. In case of a middle-aged guy named David (David Strathairn), we gradually sense the possibility of romance between him and Fern as she comes across him later and then works along with him, but the movie just simply observes whatever seems to be developed between them without spelling it out to us, and I will let you discover where that leads Fern later in the story.
Amidst these and other precious moments to be appreciated, the movie often beholds the wide and vast outdoor backgrounds surrounding Fern and others. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who previously collaborated with Zhao in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015) and “The Rider” (2017), did a splendid job of capturing the unadorned natural beauty of many different landscapes, and these indelible outdoor shots surely contribute to the haunting qualities of the film, while also reminding us of what a beautiful country US is (At least in a geological sense, you know).
As the humble human center of the film, Frances McDormand, who will definitely be Oscar-nominated in next month, is effortless in another superlative performance in her long and impressive acting career. Fully immersing herself into the realistic background of the film, McDormand steadily holds our attention via small details and nuances while not trying anything showy at all, and we come to know a lot about Fern even when she does not seem to signify that much to us. While there later comes a point where Fern confides to a certain substantial supporting character about her life and her thoughts and feelings about it, McDormand does not falter at all, and she and Zhao deftly deliver another powerful moment in the film.
In case of the other cast members in the film, many of whom are non-professional performers, they look as authentic as required in their low-key performance. While he is the most prominent member in the cast besides McDormand, David Strathairn flawlessly slips inside his supporting character as he did in some of John Sayles’ films including “Passion Fish” (1992), and several other substantial supporting performers including Linda May and Bob Wells are also solid on the whole.
After drawing lots of attention from critics with her first feature film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me”, Zhao gave us “The Rider”, a small masterwork which was incidentally one of my best films of 2018. In “Nomadland”, she advances further as surprising and moving me much more than expected, and I wholly agree with others that it is indeed one of the best films of last year. In short, this is a great film, and I wholeheartedly urge you to grab any chance to watch it right now.