Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” the filmmaker’s follow-up to “The Rider,” is every bit as a emphatic and deeply complex character study as her previous endeavor. Zhao’s third feature, which recently played at all the major fall film festivals, including Toronto, Venice, and New York, is Zhao’s adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 popular novel of the same name, a chronicle of the adventures of nomads who venture out west whose quest for liberation often ends up at a high-risk opportunity cost as they struggle to live in severely cold and threatening conditions inside their vans and RVs in cold desert nights out in the wild.
Luminous and faithful to the much acclaimed source material, Zhao’s third feature will certainly be an essential film to emerge from the new decade and become a strong Oscar contender once it gets a limited theatrical release in December. Zhao continues to express personal films about shattered souls attempting to find some reconciliation in the west, her filmmaking is so visually sublime and ministered with a deeply personal vision that her screen adaptation feels so fresh and alive. “Nomadland” is a triumphant piece of cinema– deeply involving, affecting, and all around life affirming. It is a film that many audiences will probably connect with, especially in dire times of all the doom and gloom we are all going through right now with the pandemic and political upheaval. Just as Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks” is that smart and sharp comedy we all needed this year, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is the spiritual film we need right now as it explores characters getting in touch with their mind and spirit as they drift apart from the material world of consumerism, suburbs, and other ordinary forms of materialism.
That said, “Nomadland” is a deeply lyrical film for Zhao that explores a deep and eternal love for America and its stunning landscapes, set against the uglier aspects of capitalism that often drains humanity away from all the beauty and experience. Two time Oscar winning actress has a strong opportunity in winning her third Oscar for this. McDorman’s emotional driven performance is filled with deep complexities and pathos as Zhao treats her exciting and difficult saga as a prototypical exploration of the road movie, which is always used as a metaphor for self-discovery and self-healing for a character’s need to discover new realities as well as to making amends for the old ones.
Frances McDormand in her best performance since “Fargo” plays Fern, a free-spirit in her sixties, who is now a widow after the death of her husband passed away in the town of Empire, a decayed Nevada town that no longer has a zip code once many homes foreclosed after the stock market crash of 2008. Just as the protagonist endured a crisis in Zhao’s “The Rider,” Fern attempts to heal herself by heading west inside her small van, as she attempts to find inner peace from her unexpected grief. She ends up encountering a commune of elderly people, who no longer want to participate in the mundane life of office work, who are tired of being confined to arbitrary monetary systems, and who want to generate memorable experiences and venture out in nature in the last years of their lives.
With the pandemic going on, many people are beginning to realize that life is indeed short, and that we must venture out and connect with nature and find greater bonds with others as opposed to carrying materialistic possessions. There are heartbreaking exchanges and dialogue passages in the film that truly unforgettable and resonant, one involves Fern talking with a fellow mentor Nomad who only has less than a year to live due to lung cancer that is now spreading to her brain, and she informs Fern that she refuses to live the last year of her life in a hospital bed. She insists to die living life at its fullest in the desert as she experiences the world’s beauty and landscapes in her final days.
Fern eventually has a potential romantic spark with Dave (David Sthrahairn) who holds some flirty exchanges that are good-natured and innocent. They end up parting ways, only to reconnect again. They both run out of money, and they end up working odd jobs again at Amazon, campgrounds, and in fasts-food restaurants to earn money to get them by. The biggest expense comes to Fern once she needs $2500 for a car repair, and the mechanics recommend that she sell the van because the repairs out cost the value of the vehicle. To Fern, however, the van is her livelihood and ultimately her home that is priceless.
What separates other road movies from this is just how lyrical and contemplative the film is. Zhao examines with a painter’s eye how Fern sees and even weeps, to see the meaning of the western landscapes that consist of vistas, valleys, creeks, fields, communes, and RV shows. Fern observes and sorts through her own existential crises though the meaning she is attempting to find in her life. Every person she encounters she discovers a new part of herself in the classic sense. Zhao captures plenty of unique beauty in the film’s western landscapes, and there isn’t one shed of contempt or condescending attitudes towards any of the characters in “Nomadland,” just some subtle and deep commentary on how America’s economic injustices and banality create hardships and despair that pushes people to liberate themselves from the conformity of corporate PR and more to the natural world.
This is what makes Chloe Zhao’s film so blissful and rewarding. With striking cinematography by Joshua James Richards, who frames and shoots many alluring shots in the tradition of Terrence Malick during twilight hour of the sun hovering in the sumptuous background. Zhao beautifully evokes Fern’s spiritual awakenings with natural lightening and blues as it slowly moves towards her enlightenment until the film’s powerful final moments that are nothing short of. Not Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” as the desert felt so pure, so ravishing, and breathtaking to watch.
As a faithful adaptation, the film doesn’t follow traditional story arcs or plot lines with a typical three act-suture. There aren’t contrived conflicts or simple resolutions, it just observes and continues on like a journey. The true beauty of this film is just how cyclical Fern’s life really feels. Yet, there is still something very rewarding about it as Fern encounters different people throughout the course of the film, and you can sense she is still discovering and learning new things about herself, even in her sixties. Even in its heartbreaking final moments, “Nomadland” accomplishes a transcendence–the idea of building experiences and meeting new people in a great unknown is done with such grace and elation, marking “Nomadland” as a truly extraordinary piece of cinema. I doubt I will see a better film this year.