Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Inspired by journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century’, Chloé Zhao’s third picture, a soulful and insightful study of itinerant folk, builds on the lyrical humanism of ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’ and the masterful ‘The Rider’.
McDormand is Fern, a sixty-something Nevada widow who lost her house when the local mine in her hometown, Empire, closed down. She now leads a nomadic lifestyle travelling around in her beaten up van, from chilly Nebraska to sunny California via a desert retreat in Arizona, encountering fellow itinerants along the way, picking up odd jobs when necessary, enjoying moments of campfire kinship, but dangerous privations too.
Easy-going but occasionally flinty, Fern is warm to her fellow travellers, but maintains a distance too. Zhao’s screenplay leaves it to the viewer to decide to what degree Fern’s new lifestyle is down to a necessary withdrawal from society following her husband’s death. On encountering a concerned old acquaintance who offers her shelter, Fern is quick insist that she is ‘houseless, not homeless’.
McDormand delivers an impressively self-contained and naturalistic performance, while ably playing off a cast of real itinerant characters, some of who were profiled in Bruder’s book. As with her previous pictures, Zhao exhibits a real empathy to her outsider subjects, never romanticising their way off life, yet somehow able to invest them with an almost mythical frontierspeople status. It’s mindboggling to speculate how much of her distinct style she will be carry over to her next project, Marvel superbeing picture ‘The Eternals’.
Joshua James Richard cinematography ranges from attentive and intimate to majestic vistas and gorgeous sunsets, and it’s complemented by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi's stirring, ever-shifting score.
Nomadland is available to stream on 30th April and will be screened in cinemas from 17 May.
David Willoughby Follow David on @DWill_Crackfilm