Film Reviews

“A Wonderful Story About Grief, Loss and Optimism” – Film Review: Nomadland

Alex Watkin

Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is a film in which nothing happens and everything happens. The film finds its protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand) as a nomad and it ends with her still a nomad. There are no big dramatic set pieces in between, just small moments of Fern’s life as she comes to terms with her husband’s death and searches for satisfaction in her new life.

Nomadland confirms that for a story to work on film, forced external drama isn’t needed. It constructs its emotional conflict through the combing of small intimate moments. Nevertheless, make no mistake, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without its brilliant central performance by Frances McDormand.

Through her performance, a wonderful story about grief, loss and optimism can be found

In some regards, you could watch this film and miss the story entirely and feel as if it was all first-act setup. To avoid this, you have to be perceptive to the nuance of McDormand’s performance. Through her performance, a wonderful story about grief, loss and optimism can be found. The film is the opposite of most contemporary media because it doesn’t prescribe its meaning or emotions. The film’s subtlety will result in very different experiences for different viewers.

There is a beautiful ambiguity to the film, which allows the viewer to apply themselves and their experience to the images presented. The film employs the absolute minimum to create a story. Make no mistake, this minimalist approach is incredibly risky and could have easily fell flat on its face. However, Nomadland strikes the balance perfectly and fully reaps the rewards for being at the precipice of story.

As previously mentioned, the film working as a piece owes a massive debt to McDormand’s performance. There is something about the way she delivers dialogue with such abrupt precision for the first maybe two thirds of the film that speaks volumes about her character. Yet, what is really special about McDormand’s acting is how she finds range within the performance while still holding it together as one believable character. 

The cinematography and editing are very well executed

There is brilliance outside of McDormand’s performance too, for example the cinematography and editing are very well executed. The approach is minimalistic, but it doesn’t neglect aesthetics; the film’s colour palette makes each shot fantastic to look at. Not to mention the editing isn’t choppy, so you are able to fully appreciate each shot. The film’s presentation allows the scenes with real nomads playing versions of themselves to retain their truth and authenticity.

Nomadland’s presentation is also very contemporary rather than referential. More generally, I appreciate the fact that the film deals with the contemporary world. Too often realism and character studies seem to be embarrassed about the present day and so don’t engage with it or are period pieces. Nomadland, through for example the inclusion of scenes shot at an Amazon distribution centre, allow the film to feel like it is engaging with the contemporary world rather than running away from it.

There has been some controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of Amazon, suggesting it presents the company too positively. I don’t think this criticism is necessarily warranted. The film isn’t interested in overtly politicising itself; if it did, it would lose its ambiguity. To an extent, all the political connotations wrapped up with Amazon are embedded in the film through its featuring, but the film rightly doesn’t bring them to the fore as they aren’t Zhao’s priorities.

One of the film’s best traits is its modesty

Nomadland, in another dimension, could have easily passed under the radar. It would have been massively appreciated by those who saw it, but simply would have never found the audience it now will after winning the top prize at the academy awards. I say this because, one of the film’s best traits is its modesty. It never particular feels self-important and it certainly doesn’t give you the impression that it thinks of itself as the best thing since slice bread. Instead, Zhao’s film remains incredibly personal and intimate, not to mention refreshingly optimistic.  

4 stars

Alex Watkin

Featured image courtesy of Piotr Cichosz via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @nomadlandfilm via No changes made to these images.

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