Frances McDormand stands in the centre of the frame looking to the left, wearing an oversized denim coat. She is in the middle of a empty gravelled area with bushes and mountains distant in the background.

Nomadland is the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow in her early 60s who has lived almost her entire life in a company tract house provided by the United States Gypsum Corporation in Empire, Nevada. However, following the death of her husband and a drop in demand for sheetrock, the mine was closed and the place became a ghost town, its ZIP code discontinued. In response, Fern packs her stuff up into an RV and hits the road, becoming a Nomad in the rural heart of America.

In many ways, Nomadland is a rumination on the underlying desire to leave your life and society behind and find yourself among nature. It is a slow and yet purposeful film, perfectly capturing the lives of those left forgotten in the wake of the great recession. It is packed full of both grief and hope, and even though it paints a brutally realistic portrayal of the devastating financial position Fern and the people she meets along the way find themselves in, they never let themselves be defined by that. Fern says early on in the film that she is “not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.”

There are so many scenes in the film that could be talked about to explore how the filmmakers manage to capture its whole message and feeling in each individual scene, but the best way to experience Nomadland is to go in as blind as possible and let it wash over you. One short scene though that I would like to highlight is where Fern goes to a hidden stream, and lays on her back in the water, totally naked, and just lets herself be taken by the flow. As she slowly meanders down the river, she becomes totally at one with nature, giving over control to the world around her and in that moment, despite everything else going on, she is at peace. This is something Nomadland really hammers home, that there is a beauty in the world around us if we really take the time to see it, and just like Fern is taken by the water, Chloe Zhao’s lazy river of a movie carries us on the journey of a lifetime, you just have to give yourself over and experience it.

Frances McDormand's Fern stares thoughtfully while holding a cigarette in her right hand. Her backdrop is an out of focus desolate landscape with some bushes.

Frances McDormand was the person who originally optioned the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century and brought in Chloe Zhao to make it into a film, so it should be no surprise that she commits to this entirely, and in doing so, delivers one of the finest performances of her already legendary career. McDormand’s Fern is not the grizzled and standoffish person you may expect, she is in fact a warm and kind woman who has love for people, but has suffered a devastating loss and had to make a major change in her life. We have in many ways come to expect that level of performance from McDormand, but what is really impressive here is how she fits so seamlessly into Chloe Zhao’s style and manages to perfectly interact with the non-professional actors, bringing out performances in them that they simply would not have produced without her. She is indistinguishable from the real-life Nomads she interacts with, and it is in that where she really excels.

In her short filmmaking career so far Zhao has developed a unique relationship to the American West, and in many ways, it feels like her previous two films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) have been building towards what she achieves with Nomadland. Much like her previous work, Nomadland is a soulful tone poem, deftly tapping into things many filmmakers would not even be interested in. She shoots the film with a very singular vision, the scenes of Fern working in factories, doing manual labour or cleaning toilets are presented in an almost cinema verité style, with bland colours and no score, hammering home the dullness of this everyday experience. This is then contrasted with the stunning cinematography and powerful score that we see when Fern is out in the open, living. The swirling sunsets and wide-open vastness of the American West, the startling beauty and terrifying emptiness, is all beautifully captured in her lens.

Zhao is soon going to bring us a huge budget Marvel movie, Eternals (2021), and she drops an easter egg to that here as Fern walks past a movie theatre playing ‘The Avengers’. However, despite that being an amazing opportunity, I also hope she continues to make films like Nomadland and we don’t lose the inquisitive eye of one of our most exciting new filmmakers.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures a closeup of Frances McDormand in an empty flat area with some greenery. Director Chloe Zhao is seen left of the pair studying a camera.

Nomadland doesn’t have any big dramatic or traditionally emotional scenes, but it is the hidden sense of pain and tragedy that really creeps up on you throughout and really comes to the front of the film in the third act, as lives are lost and people are remembered. There are some very powerful conversations and scenes that simply shouldn’t be spoilt, and I certainly won’t do that here, but one quote that really stood out to me was “Some people aren’t over their grief, and that’s ok”. This is a statement that will mean so much to the millions of people out there who are still struggling with grief that many people told them they will “get over”. 

On a personal level, there was something additionally special about watching this film at my local independent cinema for LFF. When Chloe Zhao’s previous feature The Rider was released in the UK in 2018, I was working the very same cinema (Showroom Cinema) as front of house staff and before the film premiere and Q&A, I was able to have an extended casual chat with the very star of that film, Brady Jandreau. We spoke, while he was dressed head to toe in cowboy attire in a cinema in Yorkshire no-less, about his excitement of being the star of such an impressive film, and how he adapted quickly to acting in Zhao’s film because he’s spent his life with horses and the key to that relationship is connection.

This conversation really came back to me after watching Nomadland, as it becomes even more clear that in her most simple essence, Chloe Zhao is a filmmaker exploring connection; between people, animals, nature, and she has found the vast American West to be the perfect canvas to paint her vision, and to search for the answers to the very basic questions of humanity. Right now, as the film industry stares the Covid-19 pandemic directly in the eyes and faces a potentially dire future in the short-term, we need filmmakers like Chloe Zhao more than ever. As the credits roll, “dedicated to the ones who had to depart. See you down the road” appears on the screen, and in that moment, you realise just what has been achieved in Nomadland, one of the finest films of the year.

Sam Howe is a Critic and Screenwriter from Sheffield, England, with a degree in Film and Screenwriting. He is passionate about movies, sport and still isn’t emotionally recovered from watching Bojack Horseman. Some of his favourite films are Gone Girl, The Lion King, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. You can find him on Twitter @SamHowe14.