From the director of “The Rider” comes a new drama already generating Oscar buzz on the film festival circuit.
Two years ago, filmmaker Chloé Zhao impressed indie movie audiences and many C&I readers with The Rider, her masterful mashup of fiction and fact about Lakota cowboy Brady Jandreau, a former rising star on the rodeo circuit who was forced to reconsider his options after a near-fatal injury. Now Zhao is back this week — and generating serious awards season buzz — with Nomadland, a drama starring Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri) that earned the top prize Saturday at the Venice Film Festival.
What’s it all about? According to Searchlight Pictures: “Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, Nomadland features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape.”
Here’s a sampling of the reviews that have appeared this week as Nomadland has appeared at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals.
“Like Zhao’s previous film, micro-masterpiece The Rider, this rich and resonant celebration of the American West straddles the border between fact and fiction, enlisting real people to play poetically embellished versions of themselves in order to reach a deeper truth. It stars Frances McDormand as an invented character, Fern, a 60-something Nevada widow who lost her house when the gypsum mine that had propped up the town of Empire closed for good, scattering the residents to the four winds. She now travels (and lives) in her run-down white van. Fern may be a composite, but Zhao surrounds her with genuine itinerants — a mix of the upbeat eccentrics profiled in Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century and drifters whom Zhao discovered in making the film.”
“If there were a Marlboro Woman, she might look like Frances McDormand's Fern: flinty, unfettered, free to roam. But Fern's home on the range is a van, and her itinerant life — as captured in Chloé Zhao's spare, extraordinary new drama Nomadland — is less a choice than a semi-permanent condition of a nation whose safety net has evaporated.”
"Nomadland… is about a new phenomenon: America’s 60- and 70-something generation whose economic future was shattered by the 2008 crash. They are grey-haired middle-class strivers reduced to poverty who can’t afford to retire but can’t afford to work while maintaining a home. So they have become nomads, a new American tribe roaming the country in camper vans in which they sleep, looking for seasonal work in bars, restaurants and — in this film — in a gigantic Amazon warehouse in Nevada, which takes the place of the agricultural work searched for by itinerant workers in stories such as The Grapes of Wrath. Zhao was even allowed to film inside one of Amazon’s eerie service-industry cathedrals.
"The film shows you that, along with the hardship and the heartache, there is also serenity in this way of life, even a kind of euphoria – without the burdens of a house and possessions you can have a glorious and very American freedom in the lost tradition of Emerson and Twain. But what happens if your van – or your body – shows signs of collapse?"
"The film's gentle drift has echoes of a long-ago cowboy campfire trail, with strangers passing in and out of one another's lives, without barriers, trading cigarettes, sandwiches or tools, sharing stories about the trauma in their past and the tranquility they've found in open spaces… Even the more conventional narrative threads are seamlessly interwoven so as to seem organic, such as the soft flickers of attraction between Fern and mild-mannered nomad Dave (David Strathairn, understated perfection as always). Ditto when engine trouble with her vehicle, nicknamed "Vanguard," sends Fern to visit her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) for a loan. The enduring affection between them is as poignant as the distance that keeps them apart.
"Like Zhao's earlier work, Nomadland is an unassuming film, its aptly meandering, unhurried non-narrative layering impressions rather than building a story with the standard markers. But the cumulative effect of its many quiet, seemingly inconsequential encounters and moments of solitary contemplation is a unique portrait of outsider existence… If you ease into the pensive rhythms of Zhao's film, there's beauty, peace and even comfort to be found."