Nomadland: Not a Single False Beat
Topical without trying
Cholé Zhao’s Nomadland tells the story of a Middle America which never recovered from the financial crisis begun in 2008. The story of a people left behind, forgotten by a system that seemed to have served the American people so well for generations. A story of the unloved children of ‘late stage capitalism’.
In the film, based on Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century, Frances McDormand plays a working nomad who leaves her hometown after her husband dies and the sole industry closes down, to be “houseless” in a van and travel around the United States. No surprise that McDormand, who co-produced the film, owns the role of Fern, and plays the part like an artist at the very top of her game. She is uninhibited, vulnerable and authentic to the T.
McDormand evokes a rich sense of a hardworking American middle class which has fallen way far behind their dreams and aspirations than anyone could have imagined at the turn of the century. Her performance and Zhao’s storytelling effortlessly capture the tragic mood of the American Midwest over the last decade. This is a high accomplishment for a narrative film with a run time of less than two hours.
The film does not have a single false beat and richly captures the flavour of the American Midwest. A scent that only a true Midwesterner would recognise. The places. The people. Their aspirations. Their insecurities. Their heart. It is all so true.
Zhao, in her third film, shows a degree of finesse that perhaps no other filmmaker in her generation has yet achieved. How else does one explain such controlled, evocative performances mostly from non-actors playing fictionalised versions of themselves in the film? It is sweet irony that a filmmaker of Chinese nationality manages to best capture the lives, losses and legends of America’s heartland so authentically.
All said and done, the film’s most remarkable quality is how topical it manages to be seemingly without trying. Its stories of loss, grief, alienation and uncertainty have a remarkable similarity with the crisis America is facing in its present day. All over again, millions of people have lost their livelihoods, uprooted with little sign of respite. Perhaps this is why Nomadland is a film of and for the moment. Small wonder it swept all the major categories at this year’s Academy awards.