REVIEW: Nomadland [LFF 2020]

In a year that for most people has been largely defined by not leaving the house, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a paean to wide, open spaces.

Based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel, we follow Fern (Frances McDormand). Uprooted by the 2008 recession – the film opens in 2011 – and by the death of her husband, Fern has hit the road in her camper van; seeking out seasonal employment along along the West Coast.

Shot on the road and populated largely by non-actors – with the exception of McDormand and David Straitharn, as would-be suitor David – Nomadland takes us from the shiny industry of an Amazon fulfilment factory, in possibly the most positive depiction of the organisation outside of a company training video1 to camper communities dotted across the American heartland with new acquaintances and familiar faces.

The film shows profound empathy for an under-depicted subsection of American culture; like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, though with icy plains replacing pink stucco, and no promise of Disneyland2 What sells it is the sense of fidelity – the cast and crew lived out of campers during production – and McDormand’s remarkable performance.

McDormand’s infinitely subtle performance threads the needle through this patchwork of places and people. Ludovico Einaudi’s simple yet haunting piano score elevates a quiet walk into something melancholy and profound.

Fern’s tough, stoic nature and sheer adaptability belie a sense of loss but of pride, too; like that which she takes in camper van, Vanguard, and keepsakes. She’s a good listener, too – the best acting, as they say, is reacting – and some of Nomadland’s most powerful scenes take the form of monologues: Swankie’s (Charlene Swankie) reminiscences of a life full of experiences, or Bob (Bob Well) discussing his philosophy on life.

Zhao just lets the camera roll, aided by Joshua James Richards’s golden-hour cinematography, and McDormand holds the scene with them, often without saying a word. There’s hardship, stories and illustration of – shitting in a bucket, or when it’s too cold to sleep – but Nomadland is so engrained in these characters’ existences that you never doubt that this is a viable way of life; even a desirable one, depending on your circumstances.

Indeed, whenever Fern is forced to stay over in a house, you wonder why anyone would ever choose that lifestyle; to voluntarily be tied down like that. As one character remarks to her, “It’s always ‘out there’ that’s more interesting”. Based on the evidence here, I’m inclined to agree.

  1. The cynic in me wonders if that’s how they got permission to shoot there
  2. And boy, would I love to see McDormand act with Willem Dafoe. Are there any two actors so good as radiating careworn warmth and humility?

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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