Review by Sean Boelman
Chloé Zhao offers what has to be one of the most authentic voices in film today, so it comes as no surprise that her newest work Nomadland, adapted from the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, is one of the most anticipated indie titles of the year. An unorthodox take on the road movie genre, Zhao’s film benefits from the filmmaker’s wonderful eye and a great performance by Frances McDormand, but struggles to create that connection that made her other scripts work so well.
The movie follows a woman on her journey to find a sense of purpose and belonging after she loses everything when the economy takes a downturn, inspiring her to take up a life of nomadism living in her van. Perhaps the main draw that the story has going for it is that it is so unique, yet comes from a place of empathy, making it a fascinating portrait of a foreign world that exists right under our noses.
From the first title card, offering a chilling fact about a small town in rural Nevada that was ruined by the recession, it’s clear that Zhao’s script offers an alternative to the traditional “American Dream”. This balanced sense of realism and hopefulness provides the emotional center of the film, even if Zhao doesn’t do enough with her characters to make it resonate.
Zhao’s admiration for this world and the group of people that built it is obvious, and much like her past work, this feels like a true-to-life depiction of the way things are in reality. However, the movie feels much more atmosphere-centric than character-based. And while this has the effect of making the audience feel this sense of sadness, it doesn’t give us a real reason as to why.
McDormand’s performance is the epitome of making a lot out of a little. There’s not a whole lot of external conflict in the film outside of the first act, and so McDormand must communicate the audience’s inner feelings, and does so in a way that is subtle and affecting. While it may not be her best work, it’s absolutely some of her most complex work.
The film should also be given props for not being restrained by the traditional structure of a road movie. Yes, the protagonist interacts with various characters along her journey, but these moments aren’t what makes the film tick. It’s the slower, more introspective portions that are the most harrowing and compelling.
Additionally, it’s an absolutely gorgeous movie. Zhao again partners with her cinematographer from The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Joshua James Richards, and the way in which they are able to capture the beauty of the American West is awe-inspiring. The score by Ludovico Einaudi is fantastic as well.
Nomadland is an undeniably beautiful film to look at, and it’s genuineness is admirable, but it’s the type of movie that will connect with some more than others. Still, Chloé Zhao is extremely talented, and the fact that she was able to make so much out of this film is definitely impressive.
Nomadland screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which runs September 10-19 and offers a blend of in-person and virtual (geoblocked to Canada) screenings.