Nomadland is a poetic journey off the beaten path of the forgotten. This American neo-Western is directed, written, edited, and produced by the refreshingly and viscerally authentic Chloé Zhao.
In Zhao’s third feature, a recently widowed woman, played by the chameleon Frances McDormand, embarks on a journey through the American West after losing everything during the recession of 2011.
The all consuming style of filmmaking and acting takes the audience on the journey through the back roads of America as one of the nomads. The breathtaking, landscape styled cinematography captures every burnt sunset and sunrise of the Badlands like a postcard from the edge.
The performance of McDormand in this film can only be described as like breathing; she transcends an actor’s performance and thoroughly embodies a woman’s emotionally barren and gritty lifestyle. McDormand, Zhao, and other crew members lived out of vans over the course of production and it comes across on film.
McDormand also also worked in an Amazon Warehouse while preparing for and filming the role. Aside from McDormand and her supporting costar, Academy Award nominated character actor David Strathairn, the rest of the cast were actual nomads who played fictionalized versions of themselves. The two-time Oscar-winning movie star is indistinguishable from the real life nomads she shares the screen with.
In Nomadland, Strathairn has the same affect with his gentle screen presence. In spite of his prolific body of work, he has always remained somewhat apart from Hollywood. McDormand has always expressed an aversion to being a “movie star” and with her poverty-stricken, orphan, self proclaimed “white trash” roots, she has also always shunned the celebrity of Hollywood even while working in it.
The director Zhao’s formative years put her on a transient path from Beijing, to London, to Los Angeles, to New York—along with a fascination for the Badlands of America— she is somewhat of an outsider herself. It seems this entire film is made of a band of misfits at heart, which is quite possibly why these specific artists were able to effortlessly blend into and breathe authenticity into a story of carrying loss alone on the road.
The raw, almost real time portrayal of a nomads shows this path is a choice when choices are extremely limited. Upon being called homeless in the film’s beginnings McDormand’s character asserts, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless.”
As she rejects offers for a place to live in from family and friends and displays unwavering loyalty to her beloved van—even when the cost of breakdown repairs outweigh the monetary value of the vehicle— we realize that this is the path she’s chosen within the wreckage of her life.
This film is a poignantly heart-wrenching look into a country that’s becoming less and less inhabitable, especially for its older generations, and increasingly stingy about who has the luxury to dream an American dream.
Admits McDormand’s character’s daily struggles, there is a meditative quality illuminated in every panoramic open road and each watercolor sunset. This backdrop off the beaten path provides a certain sense of calm and peace that can only be found in the simple life, only sought out by the those disappointed by a life left behind in ruins. This life on the road we are quietly invited along teaches us that often the losses we think will destroy us are the things that set us free.
The minimalism of solitary withdrawal from society not only brings a sense of freedom but ironically also strengthens the importance of community. Along this singular journey nomads find community and support within each other, never saying “goodbye,” but just “see you later.” The closing credits dedicate the film “for the ones who had to depart, see you down the road.”
Once again illustrating the idea that this kind of a life is both not a choice and very much a choice and there’s no permanence on the road, not even goodbye. Much like all American dreamers, these nomads hold the hope that something better will always be just beyond the horizon, as Zhao paints an aching portrait of wanderers in an America that’s abandoned them.
Now that’s Zhao has explored the great American West in Nomadland, she’s expanding to explore space and celestial beings with her first studio project Marvel’s Eternals.
Make no mistake Zhao isn’t selling out: “I shot exactly the way I wanted to shoot. On location. A lot of magic hour. I think I got lucky in that Marvel wants to take risks and do something different.” Personally, I cannot wait to follow the journey of this refreshingly raw, indie-auteur‘s next filmmaking horizon.
Bottom Line: Nomadland is a Reel See.
Runtime: 110 minutes Rating: R Watch: Hulu
Contributor Megan Penn has a passion for stories in which women are in the drivers seat, along with a bad case of retrophilia.