It’s been a meteoric rise for writer/director Chloe Zhao. Just two years ago, her sophomore feature, The Rider, marked her out as a name to watch and, by the time the year was over, her move to the Marvel Universe as director of The Eternals had been announced. But before that comes Nomadland, which has already received a rapturous reception on this year’s festival circuit, as well as winning the Audience Award at Toronto and three trophies at Venice, including the Golden Lion. Broader in scope than its predecessor, it also treads familiar territory, making the two natural companion pieces.
The casualties of the recession ten years ago were numerous, from individuals to entire communities. For Fern (Frances McDormand) it meant the closure of the industrial plant where she and her husband worked, swiftly followed by his death from cancer. With the town rapidly disappearing before her eyes – it would soon lose its zip code – she decided to put her remaining possessions in storage and adopt a more nomadic way of live, travelling the country in her RV and picking up casual work wherever and whenever she could. The film paints a portrait of a year in her life, one where she makes new friends, loses others and, ultimately, reaches a point where she cuts all ties with her previous world. Putting down roots and leading a conventional life simply isn’t for her. And it probably never was.
What distinguished The Rider was the way Zhao seamlessly incorporated real people, often playing themselves, working alongside professional actors and she repeats the idea here. But with a broader landscape, both in terms of location and characters, she places Frances McDormand at the centre of the story, with a gentle David Strathairn on the sidelines. Alongside them are people who are what Fern’s sister describes as nomads: Bob, founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona, a community offering support, practical help and friendship to those travelling around the country in similar way to Fern: Linda, her friend and jigsaw partner at her regular Christmas job in the Amazon distribution depot: Swankie, who travels alone and touches Fern with her personal story. They, and others, act as narrators for Zhao’s distinctive mixture of drama and documentary, momentarily dipping out of the storyline to tell their stories to the director, and then dipping back in to their role in Fern’s own journey.
High drama is not Zhao’s stock in trade. Instead, we’re presented with a journey, one of changing landscapes and weather, of never ending winding roads and seemingly eternal freight trains carving up the landscape. Fern’s personal travels and discoveries are the story: it’s a life that she loves, that has its hardships and rhythms but is the one she has chosen for herself, whatever the consequences. This is no soft focus portrait of life on the road: the freezing cold, the practicalities of no mod-cons, the physically demanding temporary work. But the trade-off is the freedom of the wind in her hair and the sense of being in control of her own life, neither of which she would exchange for anything. It’s all encapsulated in McDormand’s masterly performance, one that combines delicacy, subtlety and compassion with the deepest of emotions and an endearing twinkle in her eye.
Fern and her friends are the people who have been left behind, but they’re surviving and living free, despite challenges in the shape of ageism, personal regret and poverty. Nomadland shows how Zhao is rapidly maturing as a director, painting a picture full of hope, rejoicing in the small moments – standing on a canyon edge and hearing only your own voice echoed back is just one – and it celebrates the people at its heart. A truly beautiful film.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Walt Disney Studios | London Film Festival, 16 and 17 October. In cinemas, 1 January 2021 | Dir. Chloe Zhao | Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells, Charlene Swankie.