With her melancholic search for meaning NOMADLAND, in which she follows a self-proclaimed modern nomad as she navigates her life between civilization and loneliness, director Chloé Zhao is one of the big favorites in this year’s awards season. We reveal in our review how justified this front runner status is.
OT: Nomadland (USA/DE 2020)
Like many of her compatriots, Fern (Frances McDormand) lost everything she held dear after the Great Recession of 2008. After the economic collapse of an industrial town in rural Nevada, she packs her things and sets off in her van to explore life outside the conventional rules as a modern nomad. She makes the acquaintance of many like-minded people, but also has to realize that the life, which at first glance seems so daring, also has its pitfalls. But Fern is firmly convinced that she will turn her back on civilization once and for all…
In just a few years, director Chloé Zhao has become one of the most exciting filmmakers of her generation. After “Songs my Brother taught Me” and “The Rider”, which still had an insider tip status, the Chinese-born woman earned the directing position in 2019 for the Marvel blockbuster “The Eternals”, which is currently in cinemas this year should come. Before we find out whether the indie filmmaker was able to demonstrate her distinctive directing style in a multi-million dollar studio production or had to bow too much to the Disney Group’s specifications, she once again impressively demonstrates her outstanding performance in her third feature film “Nomadland”. Demonstrated powers of observation. Her film is a sensitive portrait of the modern nomad Fern. A woman who, in response to the economic collapse of her hometown, decided to live without a permanent address and now travels from state to state and from job to job in a van. The description of the content could hardly introduce the tone of “Nomadland” better: There is something audacious about the dream of a self-determined life far away from civilization, so (almost) free of social and economic obligations. Nevertheless, Fern’s decision was not entirely of her own free will, but rather a consequence of the fact that the system that gave her support simply no longer exists – just like the zip code of her hometown. Pretty melancholic.
Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn) enjoy life in the wasteland.
“Nomadland” is loosely based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction bestseller “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” in which the journalist describes the lives of modern nomads in response to the economic collapse in the American hinterland. The men and women who then decided on a non-sedentary lifestyle travel from place to place as so-called work nomads and always stay a little longer wherever there is work. In the film, Fern takes up short-time jobs in a burger kitchen and as a cleaner at a campsite. As unimaginable as such a way of life may sound at first glance, Chloé Zhao presents it in her film as natural (and anything but exotic). The director benefits from the fact that she had already explored similar terrain in “The Rider”. In her multi-award-winning cowboy drama from 2017, Zhao also skilfully oscillates between fictional drama and documentary treatment of a true fate by offering the men and women involved in the real events that serve as a basis to play themselves in “The Rider”. The film is subject to a feature film dramaturgy, but since there are no actors playing roles here, but rather normal people acting out what actually happened to them, “The Rider” has a thoroughly documentary charm.
“As unimaginable as such a way of life may sound at first glance, Chloé Zhao presents it in her film as natural (and anything but exotic). It is a great benefit to the director that she has already explored similar terrain in “The Rider.”
This time around, Chloé Zhao also draws the appeal from her film from the same approach, as “Nomadland” also stars alongside leading actress Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”) mainly amateur actors who embody themselves. The fact that such an outstanding character like Frances McDormand is at the center of the action could have gone badly wrong under a less capable director, after all, there is a risk that the actress, who is inevitably much more experienced in acting, will attract everyone’s attention. Because although “Nomadland” follows Fern’s heels, the film’s title indicates what it’s actually about: the nomad life itself. Frances McDormand lived in a van for five months in preparation for her role and traveled to seven different states, but David, Linda, Swankie and Co. are Nomads and therefore at least as important for the authentic atmosphere of the film. In the end, pretty much everyone here acts on an equal footing and forms a community of nomads that is particularly fun to watch because each of them has come to terms with this way of life in a very individual way. While some people can hardly imagine being part of civilization anymore, others would immediately swap their life in vans and caravans for a roof over their heads.
Cinematographer Joshua James Richard takes care of the atmospheric images in “Nomadland”.
In “Nomadland,” however, weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of a nomadic life never takes place through striking discussions with a pro-contra character, but rather emerges from the stories of the men and women, which are sometimes dreamy, sometimes euphoric, but at other times also turn out to be devastatingly realistic. It can therefore be worthwhile to watch “Nomadland” more than once in order to study the tonal fluctuations in the voices of the individuals, their behavior, their gestures and facial expressions – sometimes it is just a casual aside that reveals the essence of a character exposed on the bone. But even if one or two of the fates illustrated here can sometimes be quite grueling – for example, when a father describes how the death of his son indirectly led him into a nomadic life – “Nomadland” is never a pessimistic film. Instead, Chloé Zhao uses the positive “we are making the best of our situation” thoughts of the nomads she portrays as the tonal drive for her film. This protects her from becoming both romantic and too analytical. The grievances that led Fern into this life are not glossed over or even swept under the carpet, but Zhao is not aiming to find anything like solutions. Instead, from the outset, their aim was to dedicate themselves to a part of US society that hardly any filmmakers have addressed so far.
“Chloé Zhao uses the positive “we are making the best of our situation” thoughts of the nomads she portrays as the tonal drive for her film.”
Chloé Zhao’s regular cameraman Joshua James Richards (“The Rider”) dresses “Nomadland” in impressive, genuine images, for which he only used artificial light sources in exceptional cases. The color gradients in the sky and the lavish landscape panoramas appear all the more intense. But it’s not just the obvious visual power that develops an almost breathtaking impact. When Richards’ camera follows Fern in a minute-long shot as she walks across the campsite of her nomad community, greeting everyone she meets in a friendly manner and taking a few seconds of attention for each resident and their van, you get a feel for the fascination of this life, which literally has no boundaries, even without any verbal explanations.
Conclusion: “Nomadland” could very easily have been a problem film. But in her modern nomad portrait, Chloé Zhao highlights the fascination for the non-sedentary life, and is neither romantically transfigured nor analytically sober, but rather lifelike in the best sense of the word.
“Nomadland” can be seen in USA cinemas from July 1, 2021.