Frances McDormand has created another indelible character in Chloé Zhao’s stirring and empathetic drama Nomadland.
“I’m houseless, not homeless… there’s a difference”
Indeed. Over the course of writer/director Chloé Zhao’s newest film Nomadland Frances McDormand’s Fern never loses her dignity. Fern a woman who lost her husband, home, and way of life in a short amount of time now lives a nomadic existence. Fern moving around the Southwest where the jobs take her has only what her Van can hold. Though she finds richness in other things beyond the material.
It is not to say that through the course of Nomadland that Fern does not find struggles. The constant fear of being kicked out of a parking lot, finding some kind of income, her van breaking down, or worse. The nomadic existence depicted in Zhao’s film isn’t some sort of warning nor is it a valentine to a hobo lifestyle. It is the reality of Fern and others that we meet in the film.
There is an empathy that is not judgmental or preachy that Zhao imbues the film with. Working with cinematographer Joshua James Richards the duo creates a distance subjectivity. This would infer that Zhao and Richards have a created a docudrama of sorts which is not the case. Their camera though unadorned is masterful in catching the beauty of the Southwest while keeping character and story always in mind.
Zhao’s style has been honed over her first two films about people who are on the fringes of society. The most remarkable aspect of Nomadland is its ability to place us into a world we may know little about. We begin with Fern and see her unobtrusively as she starts her seasonal work at an Amazon Processing center. What unfolds is a year in the life of someone that has lost all but her dignity and refuses to let the confines of normal society dictate what she will do.
It goes without saying that Frances McDormand is one of the greatest living actors working today. As Fern, the actor finds herself in a role that is not compromised by the agency of men or any person regardless of gender for that matter. Fern is unencumbered by social confines and refuses to accept anything society or persons tries to dictate or force onto her life she wants. Even if what she wants is the tougher road. It is hers to take.
McDormand isn’t just good in Nomadland she’s amazing. Working with non-actors and actors alike she makes everyone better. Watch the way that Fern and David’s (David Strathairn) story unfolds. There is little to no dialog. None is needed as we see how these acting greats McDormand and Strathairn are allowed to be within the space they’re given.
The same is true of the work she does with non-professional actors. The friendship between Fren and Swankie (played by Swankie). There is an unspoken bond of friendship as they work together or help each other through issues. How McDormand never overshadows these scenes and in ways allows Swankie to live in the moment is powerfully fascinating.
Nomadland is filmmaking at its finest. Rich with story, performance, visuals, and emotions. Chloé Zhao, Frances McDormand, and the cast and crew of this film have created a powerful and potent story for our unsure times.