Chloé Zhao might be the most empathetic director working in modern Hollywood, or just outside of it. This will change later this year when Zhao’s Eternals arrives on the big screen, throwing the director in the big leagues with a huge, presumably spectacle-filled Marvel film. After watching Nomadland, it’s hard not to be excited and hopeful at how Eternals will turn out.
Nomadland follows Fern (a quietly powerful Frances McDormand), a woman living from her van, traveling around America as a nomad, working short-term jobs. Fern’s life took a turn after she lost both her husband and her job alongside thousands of others in her home town of Empire, Nevada. Fern’s life is simple, plain but filled with meaningful connections with her fellow nomads.
Is there a point to Nomadland? Not really. It’s a film where nothing happens; there aren’t big story beats or plot twists, but Zhao’s apparent empathy and warmth as a storyteller carries us through Nomadland. It’s a film that sneaks up on you emotionally, one that never manipulates you to get you to care, but one that slowly, quietly convinces you of its power and impact.
McDormand is great, as expected. She mostly blends in with the non-professional actors and Nomadland occasionally plays like a documentary. Joshua James Richards’ rich cinematography captures the vastness of America’s landscape with admiration and curiosity. His camera observes, never intrudes and Nomadland is a masterclass in organic, naturalistic filmmaking on all fronts.
Equally, the film’s sound design is a thing of beauty. Ludovico Einaudi’s understated piano score accompanies some scenes, gently guiding the audience’s emotions and responses, but Zhao is never afraid of a little quiet. There are moments of silence and solitude in Nomadland, a stillness that isn’t easy to pull off, but Zhao makes it look effortless. Perhaps that’s Nomadland’s greatest achievement, just how uncomplicated it is, how smoothly it flows.
Much has already been said about the film’s depiction of Amazon, but to only focus on those fleeting moments, would be to reduce the film to a source of discourse. Amazon by no means comes across great here, it’s not a straight up criticism of the troublesome company, but that’s not what Zhao’s film is about. It’s not about Amazon potentially exploiting workers, but about Fern’s need to work, to have purpose, even if it’s menial tasks at a warehouse and what forced her to seek work with Amazon in the first place. These scenes take up only mere minutes in the film’s almost 2-hour runtime.
Nomadland is a true masterpiece, both on a technical level as well as in terms of its storytelling. It never tries to force a message through to the audience, but simply wants to showcase a different way of living, from a different generation’s perspective. The road is at times romanticised by Richards’ camera, but the way of life and the causes behind it never are. Zhao’s approach is one of warts and all; McDormand’s performance is real and unfussy. She is unafraid to show Fern just as she is whether it’s having diarrhoea in a bucket, scraping the grill at a diner or swimming nude in a stream.
The film easy to connect with, to fall head over heels for. From its characters – we all need a Swankey in our life – to the gorgeous cinematography and sound, Nomadland is a winner. All of its elements co-exist in perfect harmony, a testament to Zhao’s confidence as a director. This truly is one of the best films of not just the year, but of the decade.
Nomadland will stream on Disney+ April 30.