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Review: “Nomadland” goes where few movies have ever gone

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Director Chloe Zhao’s new film is a welcome, artful departure from blockbuster culture.

By Soren Blomquist Eggerling, Staff Writer

Frances McDormand stars in Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" as Fern, a woman who leaves home to travel the American West. (Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

Frances McDormand turns in one of her best performances ever in Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” a naturalistic triumph filmed with a precision and poetic beauty that are stark departures from the status quo.

“Nomadland” follows the fiercely independent Fern (McDormand), an older widow who embarks cross-country on a meandering, wholly realistic journey in search of purpose and self-realization. Fern does not seem to have an end goal in mind, picking up and putting down wherever the wind takes her (as long as there is seasonal work). She is part of a loosely associated crew of nomads who — despite their incisive, gut-wrenching performances — are the real thing; only McDormand and David Strathairn are professional actors.

Like many of her past films, Zhao chose to cast real people, giving them limited direction and an imperative to tell their truth as those who find comfort in the lack of a permanent home. These people may not be actors, but they certainly have a story to tell, and they tell it well.

Near the end of the film, Bob Wells, the nomads’ leader who bears a resemblance to a road-weary Santa Claus, delivers a monologue on loved ones and the nature of life that would be an exemplary piece of writing if it were not for the fact that Wells is telling his own true story and reflections on it. In using a stripped-back approach, Zhao points her lens on a reality deeper and more complex than most films attempt to manufacture.

While Zhao has no doubt has created an introspective piece of art that hopefully will signify to Hollywood that films like “Nomadland” can succeed, the film’s lack of conflict and a traditional story arc hold it back from perfection. The film’s slow buildup is a wonderful metaphor for the life of the unmoored, but the story could benefit from a bit more uncovering of Fern’s character in the film’s first half in order to sustain a high level of engagement. While the piecemeal detail works well for the other characters, the plot tends to slow down without an active protagonist who is growing or we are growing to understand.

That being said, Zhao’s film is a delight, especially for film junkies out there. Already taking home the prize for the best drama film at the Golden Globes, it wouldn’t be a shock if “Nomadland” is bound for Oscar glory as well, especially in a year with a dearth of traditional options.

Correction: Incorrectly spelled Frances McDormand's name as Francis McDormand. The review is now updated.

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