It was an enormous bet that the most anticipated film in 2021 would be the 61-year old woman who is spit in the bucket. However, Chloe Zhao's film founded on a breathtakingly stunning portrayal by Frances McDormand as a traveller living a life of the margins and is a marvel of a film, which is simultaneously a state-of-the-nation rant on a neglected underclass of the fading working class communities as well as a portrait of a an incredibly strong, quiet determination. Zhao's previous two film projects, Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, have played small-scale, intimate dramas with casts that were not professional in the vast skies and vast American landscapes. Nomadland keeps these themes alive however, it elevates her work to a new degree, offering a gorgeously constructed clear and uncluttered view of ideas regarding loss, home, and the plight of women and all with an incredibly emotional swell.
Nomadland is a departure from Zhao's prior M.O. by the fact that this time she's working, though a bit vaguely using an original basis material (Jessica Bruder's work in non-fiction with the same title) and working with an actor known by name. Frances McDormand plays Fern an eloquent widow who spent all of her adulthood in Empire, Nevada, which was hit hard in 2011 when the gypsum mine which sustained the town's economic viability was shut down. Zhao and McDormand set up Fern in a way that is both economic and telling strokes — her slipping into the overalls of her husband's death while sifting through his possessions in a locked-up tells a lot about their relationship while she travels the nation in an ergonomically designed vehicle (named Vanguard), working whatever seasonal work she can. It could be in a sorting line of an Amazon fulfillment center, or sifting through the harvest of beets or cleaning the toilets at the RV parks. The beauty of Fern her: she's never being a victim of circumstance working and looking for work whenever she can. If she meets an aspiring student she taught in a sports shop and is offered of an apartment to live in: "I'm not homeless, I'm just homeless. That's not the same but what do you think? Do not worry about me."
Filmmaker who is at simultaneously soulful and meticulous; free of distractions, she is less of than a storyteller, and more of an attentive keeper of fleeting interactions
When an employer supervisor informs her she's not fit in any positions she has written about, Fern joins one of the van-dwelling's seminar camps led by expert Bob Wells (like the majority of the cast members, who play himself) and is taught the essentials of nomadic living such as parking in stealth, "how to look after your own trash" and the expression, "See you down the road," a less permanent method of saying goodbye. This is where Nomadland is transformed into a travel film but it's not one that takes you between A and B but rather wandering around the countryside. Zhao is able to capture both pleasures (the bonding among drifters, the changing beauty of landscapes) as well as the frustrations (breaking down buckets of trash) as Fern enjoys precious moments with her new companion The spirited Swankie who is awe-inspiringly playing herself.
It appears as if Zhao will accept the convention. In one of the stops, Fern meets mild-mannered traveller Dave (David Strathairn at his most subtle David Stratherniest) and there appears to be a spark of romance between Dave and Fern, Zhao using the only two faces that are easily recognized on the screen to draw the two together. Despite Fern admiring Dave's gear and his rig, their relationship develops however, not in the manner one would expect.
Like earlier collaborations Zhao along with regular director Joshua James Richards find a wonderful middle place between Terrence Malick's realism and a more scathing documentary that emotes but doesn't romanticize the action and connects the characters to their environment. Zhao employs Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi to create music for Fern's inner thoughts with increasingly profound ways.
However, Nomadland endures, and prospers, thanks to two women. Frances McDormand delivers possibly the performance of her life playing an individual living life to her own terms that is trying to determine what her own terms mean. In Zhao's quasi-improvised world her performance is more bare than ever before, and is able to blend with and elevating non-professionals , while giving Fern with a stunning sorrow. She is ably guided by Zhao who is like an Agnes Varda-inwaiting, who infuses the entire film with a sense of the non-believer. The filmmaker is who is at both soulful and meticulous; relaxed, less of an author, but an attentive keeper of fleeting moments of intimacy and interactions that meld into something more than the totality of the parts. Some people will not get caught up in Nomadland's slow, circular rhythms however, if it is your case, then the outcome is an experience that is transcendent.