Nomadland – Review

Frances McDormand is exceptional in a story about living in a van.

Nomadland is, at the time of writing, the favourite for the best picture award at the Oscars in a few weeks time. Beyond that, it’s directed by Chloe Zhao who the marvel fans amongst you might know as the director who was given The Eternals which comes out later this year. Don’t come to this film expecting something like a marvel spectacle. Nomadland is something very different to your standard blockbuster.

Nomadland follows Fern, played by the always magnificent Frances McDormand, a woman who has committed to life as a nomadic traveller living in her van. This has come about after the death of her husband and essentially the closure of her town after the industry that kept it going shut down. Her performance is incredible, feeling incredibly real. That same genuine feeling I felt watching Minari a few weeks ago was back here.

As you are watching Nomadland, it feels like it’s blurring the lines between a fictional story and a documentary. The people Fern meets along the way feel incredibly genuine. The key reason for that, most of the other people in this film aren’t actually actors. They’re what’s been called “Non-actors”. These are people who are essentially playing a slightly altered version of themselves. Drawing from their own experiences to bring their own real life trials and tribulations to Fern’s fictional story.

That all brings a real sense of authenticity to Nomadland. I don’t know if I’ve seen another film do it quite like this that wasn’t a documentary. It feels like the character of Fern has been dropped into this world of mostly elderly Americans who are living this nomadic lifestyle and Frances McDormand has just lived the life for the year the film covers. Of course, that isn’t how it happened, it is written and the events are scripted. Every character is at least a little different from the real person.

This film tells more of it’s story using visual story telling and well placed music than it does with character dialogue. When people are talking it has a purpose, or they just make small talk. There isn’t the kind of forced conversations you feel happen in a lot of films where every emotion and explanation has to be said out loud by someone. You feel the weight of loss, the consistency of grief and the joy of remembering.

The score is one of the best this year. It sounded how I felt Fern was living. Still for a moment, then on the move. The character never wants to stop in one place for too long, and by the end I understood why. This, perhaps more than any of the other Oscar nominated films this year, is a moving film. Maybe the year we’ve all had contributed to this, but this film made me think about how we deal with loss and how we can move on but keep the one’s we’ve lost in our minds. But I can easily see someone else getting a different, maybe more positive message about your enjoying life your way.

Chloe Zhao’s approach to this film shows all the hallmarks of a great filmmaker. The unorthodox approach to the casting pays dividends with the authentic feel. It boasts an excellent score that’s memorable and fits the main character. The cinematography lets the breath taking scenery do the talking, at times looking like a windows background in it’s picture perfect nature. Nomadland is a personal story told in an intimate way that hits home. It’s a very “Oscary” movie in that it’s not going to get your blood pumping with adrenaline, but it might just make you think.

Good: Great performance by Frances McDormand, and I really liked how it made me think about certain things towards the end of the film.

Bad: The meandering plotless style may turn people off even though it fits the “Nomad” tag.

TL;DR – Nomadland is one of the more thought provoking films I’ve seen for a while, and moves up to my No.2 for best picture. (Chicago 7 remains top dog for me).