Film review: Nomadland an achingly beautiful and poetic paean to solitude

Frances McDormand in Nomadland, a role for which she won Best Actress at the Academy Awards this week. The film also won the Best Film and Best Director Oscars
Damon Smith (PA)

NOMADLAND (12A, 107 mins) Drama/Romance. Frances McDormand, Linda May, Bob Wells, Charlene Swankie, David Strathairn, Melissa Smith, Peter Spears. Director: Chloe Zhao. Released: April 30 (streaming exclusively on Disney+) and screening at UK & Irish cinemas from May 17

IN ONE of the naturalistic conversations tightly woven into the fabric of Nomadland, Bob Wells – a real-life trailblazer for the van-dwelling nomadic lifestyle – explains to Frances McDormand's widow that members of his free-spirited community never say goodbye.

“We just say, ‘I'll see you down the road',” he softly professes.

It is impossible to say farewell to writer-director Chloe Zhao's achingly beautiful and poetic paean to solitude inspired by Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century.

Directed, produced, written and edited by the Chinese-American film-maker, this delicate character study lingers fondly in the memory, dedicated to a generation of outsiders who have abandoned conventional living and created self-sufficient communities off the beaten track.

McDormand's unselfconscious lead performance as a grieving vagabond on the fringes of American society is enriched by a non-professional supporting cast of real-life nomads.

Joshua James Richards's exquisite cinematography captures tightly wound emotions in the majestic wilderness in every imaginable refraction of natural light, set to the haunting lament of composer Ludovico Einaudi's score.

Zhao's elegant script exercises restraint when feelings are most heightened: characters turn their backs on the past without fanfare and when one nomad dies, the tribe tosses rocks into an open fire in remembrance, causing embers to spew heavenwards into a starry firmament.

Nomadland opens with archive images of Empire, a prosperous mining town in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. When the gypsum plant closed in 2011 the God-fearing community evaporated, leaving behind a graveyard of weather-beaten empty stores and company homes.

Sixty-something former worker Fern (McDormand) retrieves precious belongings from her storage locker before she hits snow-laden roads in a rusty white van. A seasonal job fulfilling orders at an Amazon warehouse tides her over.

One of Fern's colleagues, Linda May (playing herself), quits the cacophonous shop floor for the serenity of a desert camp run by Bob Wells, which provides “a support network for people who need help now”.

Fern follows Linda May to sun-scorched Arizona, where she is embraced by dispossessed and displaced souls including David (David Strathairn) and Swankie (Charlene Swankie).

Moving between camps and temporary jobs, Fern is pricked with guilt by an overdue reunion with her sister (Melissa Smith) before she confronts the reality of life without her husband.

Using Fern as a dramatic fulcrum, Nomadland cherishes the enduring power of the human spirit on numerous soul-stirring detours without a clearly designated and potentially contrived final destination.

Zhao's understated and profoundly moving trek into America's economically ravaged heartland does not draw attention to its simple yet artful construction.

McDormand melts effortlessly into her surroundings, fiercely committed to authenticity in her role whether she is relieving herself in a bucket or tenderly recalling her father's poignant mantra: “What's remembered, lives.”

By that simple measure, Nomadland burns brightly.

RATING: 9/10

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