Chloe Zhao’s third film, Nomadland, has received wide-critical acclaim, with the film winning Best Picture and Zhao winning Best Director at the Academy Awards last month. Nomadland is a slow and dramatic film that will easily touch your heart due to its meaningful message and care put into its subject matter.
Nomadland is ultimately about life and how we choose to experience it and what those experiences mean for us. Based on Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film follows Fern (Frances McDormand) after she loses her job due to the closure of the US Gypsum in Empire, Nevada. With nothing left for her in Empire, Vern decides to sell most of her belongings and travel across the country looking for work, meeting all kinds of people along the way.
Writer/Director Chloe Zhao is not afraid to touch on uncomfortable subjects and dig deep into what it means to live. Through Fern’s eyes, we are able to experience a world many of us do not realize is there hidden away between the suburbs and bustling cities. There is so much land worth exploring and so many people worth meeting. The characters within Nomadland are not overtly deep. They do not verbalize their individual trauma. Instead, most of the emotion of the film comes from the direction and acting.
Every single member of Nomadland‘s cast brings an earnest performance that feels real. There are people exactly like Fern and Dave out in the world and we see many of them play themselves in this film. For Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, the story of the film was mostly real, with them having lived in similar circumstances within their own lives. While there is a level of fiction to their performance, much of the emotion they show is backed by their reality.
I can only imagine the unique experiences the rest of the cast and crew had working with a man like Bob Wells. The Rubber Rendezvous meets every year in Quartzsite, Arizona, and what better way to capture the experience of it than to feature the leader of the event in the film. Not many YouTube stars can manage making the transition from online personality into film, but Bob manages it fantastically. Charlene Swankie’s role in the film carries a similar emotional weight. However, the significance given to her and Fern’s friendship allows Swankie’s emotional moments to really shine, which should come as no surprise considering the talent she is bouncing off of.
Frances McDormand’s performance in Nomadland is well-deserving of her Academy Award for best actress. The amount of emotion she is able to display despite her minimal dialogue is exceptional. The chemistry between her and the rest of the cast is palpable, especially Swankie and David Straithairn. The development Fern gets throughout the film is subtle, yet emotionally impactful because of the amazing talent involved.
Zhao’s direction is not overtly bombastic. Like Nomadland’s writing, the shot composition, framing and camera movements are simplistic. Zhao only transitions to wide shots to portray a specific theme of the film: loneliness. Fern often feels alone without actually being alone, and this is represented most in Joshua James Richards’ cinematography and Zhao’s editing. While not obvious at first, every frame can be used to describe how Fern is feeling in that moment. The close-up shots focusing on Fern or the other characters’ emotions seem to represent when Fern feels comfortable, giving off a warm feeling. Ludovico Einaudi’s simple score adds to the comfort of these scenes, making the atmosphere of the film feel full and lively despite the calmness of the scene.
This contrasts greatly with the empty uneasiness present throughout a a decent chunk of the film, forcing the audience to feel sympathy for Fern’s situation despite Fern seeming contempt with her situation.
Nomadland may be under two hours, but the pacing of the story it tells feels like a lifetime has passed by the time you finish watching it. However, I was engaged for every moment of it. It is weird for a 108-minute film to feel like three hours, but it is even stranger that I loved it despite its slow pace. I am excited to see what Chloe Zhao brings further down the road.