The Best Picture winner is an elegantly made drama beautifully helmed by Chloé Zhao and with a formidable performance by Frances McDormand.
A tattoo on a nomad’s arm ponders the thought of whether home is something you take with you, rather then a geo-physical place. It is the concept at the heart of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which illuminates the lives and culture of North America’s nomadic community. Based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, the film’s backdrop is the Great Recession in the early 2010s which causes Fern (Frances McDormad) to lose her job and forces her into living on the road in her van, Vanguard.
Zhao and McDormand (who is also credited as a producer) lived in vans themselves during the production, as well as utilising real nomads to fill out their supporting cast. This generates an authentic depiction of the lifestyle, one immensely boosted by the stunning cinematography. Frequently shooting in the sublime ‘magic hour’, Zhao and her trusty director of photography Joshua James Richards record some splendid rural imagery that recalls the use of natural lighting in The Revenant, as well as some fluid tracking shots that ensure the camera is as mobile as Fern is. It is an achievement considering the magic hour only allows 20 minutes of filming or so, but the use of wide Ultra Prime lenses ensures that the landscapes are continually impressive to behold. A further artistic flourish is how the camera is always grounded; the undeniable urge to opt for aerial footage to enlarge the USA’s environments has been cast aside in order to keep the focus entirely on Fern, with the distant sun shining over her acting as a promise for a better future.
McDormand’s Fern is another honest, brave role for the veteran actor. Shifting from vulnerable to friendly, introverted to playful, it’s a very earnest, believable performance that just about maintains interest in the film when the landscapes occasionally switch to more urban and interior scenes. This is perhaps the chink in the film’s armour; when not on the modern frontier the lack of narrative and previous backstory causes the film’s rhythm to stumble, with the emotional closure at the end undermined by a lack of flashbacks or, alternatively, a short prologue.
McDormand, Zhao and James Richards have all rightly earned acclaim, but Nomadland’s secret weapon is Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, an exceptional musician who supplies some of his tracks to form the picture’s score (Einaudi also provided music for Oscar rival The Father). The elegance of his piano, among other instruments, is first used to map a transition from frosty tundra to arid desert, to near-moving effect. Several other Einaudi-scored nature montages occur and the effect oozes melancholy and purity. Of course, while it’s a shame it isn’t new and original music, it is also great to see his songs accompanied by some smooth visuals.
In other times, Nomadland’s setting might seem slightly outdated due to the economic crash having happened a decade ago, but the Covid-19 era has shown how life imitates art: a repeated, darkly lit shot of workers entering an oppressively looming Amazon warehouse echoes the last year’s financial shortcomings and the joblessness associated with it. The subtext is loaded with industrial and natural conflict; the lack of score in urban environments for instance. But Zhao reaffirms the importance of nomadic communities by placing them as a bastion against such conflicts. Fern’s sister identifies the lifestyle with the pioneers of the Old West, emphasising it as a continued and vital tradition. And, as McDormand delivers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, there is a strong feeling of hope, beauty and, in the context of the scene, promise, for life to continue and improve after hardship.
Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao, is distributed in the UK via Walt Disney Pictures, certificate 12A. It’s available to stream now on Disney+ and will be released in UK cinemas on the 17th May. Watch the trailer below: