Fern (Francis McDormand), in the wake of the death of her husband as well as the economic collapse of her long-time hometown, sets out in pursuit of a new way of life. Settling into a tight-knit community of modern-day Nomads, she transitions into their world as they show her the dangers, and wonders, of the life they lead. Chloe Zhao’s approach is reminiscent of The Rider (her second feature), employing frequent wide-shots of the brutal vastness of the American West, prolonged takes, tracking McDormand (who’s presence dominates the screen throughout) and a soundtrack for the ages featuring the music of Ludovico Einaudi. Each element of the film is measured and precise and the result is even greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Zhao seems to have a soft spot for shooting at night. Early on, she dials into a scene around a campfire as backstories quietly and candidly unfurl from the mouths of Fern’s company. It’s a somber yet affirming affair and the scene floated around in my head for a few days after. Some took up the Nomadic life in search of inner peace, some to escape, some simply to live a life of adventure and exploration. Each as valid and as heard as the next. The fact that many of McDormand’s co-stars are non-actors and instead real-life Nomads, gives their stories an added weight and authenticity that couldn’t be replicated in any other way. Had I not known, I wouldn’t have guessed, or even questioned it, which speaks to deftness with which it’s handled. It’s a daring move from Zhao, to construct a cast principally from non-actors, but she conducts it perfectly and McDormand’s chameleonic abilities allow her to integrate into their world with ease. Speaking of McDormand’s performance, once again she took home Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Fern. That’s the hattrick. In all honesty though, I’d say her turns in both Fargo and 3 Billboards are stronger, and with Carey Mulligan, Viola Davies and Vanessa Kirby all vying for the title this year, I was conflicted with McDormand’s win. It’s certainly a far more subdued and quiet role, with little in terms of high drama where she can really flex the muscles she displayed so proficiently in 3 Billboards. But perhaps that’s the genius of it? Fern’s life is one of mundanity and solitude which isn’t something we typically see in our escapism yet it’s something to which we can all relate.
The film is in no rush and as it gently rolls along, it becomes apparent that this isn’t a conflict heavy drama and is actually something that feels closer to a documentary. We are a fly-on-the-wall, following Fern as she muddles through the cyclical nature of Nomadic life. Temporary work here and there, occasional moments of quiet contemplation, shitting in a bucket after some dodgy meat, you know, a day in the life. Personally, despite all its merits, I wouldn’t have pegged it for Best Picture. There’s no denying Zhao’s talent and she is certainly worthy of the recognition she is now receiving, but after seeing the likes of Promising Young Woman and Sound of Metal in recent weeks, something didn’t quite click for me when Nomadland took the Oscar. Now, if you’re looking for a rip-roaring time at the cinema. Don’t go and see Nomadland. It’s safe to say this isn’t an in-your-face, blockbuster thrill ride and nor should it be. The themes at play here are layered and, at times, desperately sad. It may force questions upon you that you’ll wrestle with long after the credits roll. However, if you’re wanting a stunningly shot, expertly crafted, beautifully acted story of life, laughter, love and loss set to a soaring and devastating soundtrack, then you’re in luck.
Okay, before I go, let me talk Marvel for just one moment. I know, I know but bare with me… In September 2018 Marvel hired Chloe Zhao to direct Eternals, based on the comic book characters of the same name. Back then Zhao had only two features to her name. Two. With her third, she is now the second woman ever to be crowned Best Director at the Oscars and the first woman of colour, and all of this comes just months before the release of the long-awaited MCU film. Now I don’t know about you but I’m thinking Disney, with their seemingly-bottomless pockets, have built either a time-machine or some method of seeing the future because how could they have known? How could they have known that right now, at this pivotal moment in the MCU, nay, Cinema history, Zhao would be the hottest director on the planet?! I’m on to you Feige… I’m on to you.
Ruling – Time machine or not, there’s no denying that Zhao is not just ‘one to watch’ anymore. She’s here and she’s here to stay and I can’t wait to see what she does with a Disney budget and a sword-wielding Angelina Jolie…