Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells, Peter Spears
Chinese film director Chloe Zhao has become the most awarded director in a single award season with her film Nomadland. From Toronto and Venice to the L.A., Chicago and New York film critics, Zhao has bagged them all. And now she has won Best Director at the prestigious Golden Globes, making her the second woman to win the Golden Globes Best Director title (the first was Barbra Streisand for the gorgeous Yentl bacon in 1983!). One can only wait and see if she wins the Oscar. But is Nomadland indeed deserving of the “Best Film” title?
Nomadland must have been made by an artist with an old soul, because it is certainly not for all viewers, or for all ages. For the young generation, it might be seen as slow-paced, or too ‘uneventful’. The deeply sombre and meditative film follows Fern (Frances McDormand) who lives out her life in a van. She lives in no house and although her sister and friends offer her a temporary shelter under their roofs, she refuses to be dependent on them, even feeling insulted that she is perceived as a needy lonesome woman. McDormand is phenomenal, as always, as Fern. Quiet, stubborn and kind, we see Fern as introverted, someone who finds pleasure in her own company rather than in others. But she also doesn’t mind chatting and socializing with fellow van travellers. In that way, Fern is a nuanced, three-dimensional character and McDormand avoids any easy stereotyping when playing the reserved, rugged widow.
The cinematography here is breathtaking, reminiscent of the painting-like shots in Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019), but trade the latter’s beaches with the former’s desert. The cinematographer Joshua James Richards also happens to be director Chloe Zhao’s real-life partner. Perhaps their closeness in real life is the reason why the director’s vision seems so loyally projected onto the screen, with each visual carrying weight and emotion.
The plot of the film feels loose and aimless from time to time, as if the director picked up a camera and alongwith the lead actress, decided to travel through the US and film the actress’ interaction with everyday Americans. This feeling is thanks to Zhao who indeed did that. Many of the people in this film are simply playing themselves and recounting real-life stories. Some critics have even described the sombre Nomadland as a docu-fiction and a travel montage. The dialogues, the people’s non-glamorous faces, authentic accents, lack of make-up, and handheld cameras all give the film an air of social realism.
This method of filming may not suit every film goer’s taste but it is a truly gorgeous film with some marvellous acting, some occasionally funny moments, and a brutally honest social message in its portrait of a working-class America that is dealing with old age, unemployment, ineffective social security system, and consumerism in its late stage of capitalism. It is humanistic, sparse, and reflective but not judgmental or angry. Special shoutout to David Strathairn who, in his role of David, brings some warmth and tenderness to the film in the screen time he gets.