Sometimes brutal and often heartbreaking, NYFF’s ‘Nomadland’ might be the highlight of the festival… and the year.
Chloé Zhao is on track to be one of the best filmmakers currently working in America. In a career that has stretched only back to 2015, the Chinese native Zhao has made hit after hit. Her debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, debuted at Cannes Film Festival and was a fast favorite among independent audiences. Next, she made the phenomenal The Rider in 2017, a modern western inspired by the true story of star Brady Jandreau. And now, she has made Nomadland. And we should all bow down to her talents.
It’s almost shocking to know that Nomadland (which was the Centerpiece film of the 58th New York Film Festival) is only the third film of Zhao’s. It carries the importance and presence that is hard for filmmakers that have been around for decades to master. In fact, it’s almost shocking that she already has another film ready for release, Marvel’s Eternals (due in November of next year after a year’s delay due to COVID-19).
Nomadland stars two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow forced to travel around in search of work. We see Fern go from an Amazon warehouse to a national park to a rock washing business. It could be played simply, but the immensely talented McDormand gives Fern so much love and care into every moment on screen. Moments where she assertively calls herself “houseless” and explains why she lives in an RV or a shot of her crinkling her eyes in a specific way tell you more about the character than nearly any other actress could.
Not only that but McDormand herself does the jobs her character performs. As one of the only professional actors in the film (the other is David Strathairn as a fellow nomad), Frances McDormand gets to act opposite real humans with real stories.
Therein lies the magic of Nomadland and Zhao’s filmmaking style. While Fern is a fictional character, nearly every other performer is a non-professional actor whom Zhao met because of their nomadic lifestyle. A woman with cancer in Nevada, a man who lost his son in South Dakota, a commune of travelers in California… each is a real human with real emotions. Zhao films them telling stories and McDormand acts with aplomb against each. The movie so cleverly blends reality and fiction that I found myself forgetting it wasn’t just a straightforward documentary.
This doesn’t even get into the beauty of the film on a filmmaking level. The cinematography from Joshua James Richards finds artistry in the setting sun and vast landscape of the American West. The film is so shockingly beautiful I found myself tearing up more than once.
The story of the movie is a success, but almost inconsequential. You will find yourself remembering stray moments of the film for weeks and weeks to come after watching. That I can almost guarantee. While I won’t advise seeing Nomadland in theaters, due to COVID, I would strongly recommend finding it at a drive-in. The bigger the better. And mark my words, we will be looking at an Oscar from Chloe Zhao by the end of the decade.
Nomadland will be released by Searchlight Pictures on December 4th.