Chloe Zhao's latest delivers a poetic and immersive look at modern nomads
The Western genre has found it hard to adapt to modern times. It seems that any movie classified in that genre has to be set in the 19th century in order to be qualified. However, there have been attempts at making a “modern Western” with the likes of Taylor Sheridan, putting an emphasis on the modern lawman and criminals in such films as Hell or Highwater (2016) and Wind River (2017). However, the Western genre encapsulates the duel between man and the unexplored and unforgiving wilderness; at least that is my broader definition of the genre. That’s what made Jeremiah Johnson (1972) such a hypnotic watch, and we finally might have the modern counterpart to that film with Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020).
Nomadland is the story of Fern (Frances McDormand) a woman in 2011, who after losing her husband, her job, and her home lives in her van, traveling the American west and interacting with other modern nomads. We see her move with the seasonal harvests, where she can make a couple of bucks at a part time job to keep herself afloat.
This is Zhao’s most “Hollywoody” film yet, as she has normally kept to a semi-documentary narrative style. In her previous films, such as The Rider (2017), she would use non-actors and the real people whose story she was telling. It added an extremely naturalistic and authentic feel to her films, making them seem unstaged and transcending the neo-realist categorization. Zhao has always been a director much more focused with creating an encompassing ambience and understanding of the routine that her characters live. She is fascinated with the current state of the American west, as all her three films have been set there and then. Nomadland proves to be the first time she works with professional actors, with McDormand in the lead and David Strathairn in a supporting role. However, Zhao still retains her casting style, by employing many real nomads to play themselves in the film. This permits Nomadland to maintain a loose style of dialogue and rhythm, which proves to be both laid-back and engrossing.
Nomadland’s tone is very similar to Sydney Pollack’s in Jeremiah Johnson were our character and his silence are much more informative than any dialogue. However, with such a rhythm and lack of clear structure, Nomadland might prove to be slow for many viewers. Zhao isn’t interested in telling a classically formulated story, or to even follow basic narrative rules. Her objective is more focused on providing a blend of a documentary piece on the modern nomads, and to immerse viewers into what their life is like. As such, Fern’s journey is one that is rooted in being an audience surrogate rather than telling her actual story.
Such narrative choices don’t get in the way of McDormand, however. The American actress surprised me in Nomadland, which after two Oscar wins is quite impressive. McDormand had been settling into a rhythm of roles where she would play a tough and no-nonsense woman in Olive Kitteridge (2014) or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). In Nomadland, McDormand takes a turn towards a much quieter and delicate performance that relied on long silences. McDormand flourishes here with a clear creative chemistry between her and Zhao’s direction. The result is a transcendent performance that truly percolates the reality of such a life to viewers.
Zhao doesn’t want viewers to pity the nomads that she is depicting, but rather to see the dignity and strength that they exhibit while surviving hardships and trauma. There is a clear unspoken theme of abandonment regarding what pushed many to become wanderers. There could have been an underlying message and scolding in Nomadland, regarding how society has thrown away these people to fend for themselves; but Zhao seems to be more intent on letting the film unfold organically instead on inputting any blatant message. As a result, the film dangerously appears to be romanticizing a way of life that is a symptom of the poor safety net and welfare state in the United States. This is Nomadland’s biggest flaw, where Zhao seems to have been swept away by the beauty of certain shots and the poetry regarding Fern and her freedom, to put focus on the harrowing suffering that such a life instills.
In the end, Nomadland proves to be a rather unique film regarding its structure and loyalty to style. Zhao’s retains an impressive ability to immerse viewers into ignored worlds, and difficult worlds. McDormand delivers yet another career-best performance, elevating a film that might otherwise have been bogged by the rosy-eyed view it has regarding the lives it is depicting.