In a hushed year for new releases, postponed or sent straight into the often confusing digital ether, and one that saw us all spend the majority of our time quietly indoors, it tracks that one of the most common and cogent threads weaved throughout some of 2020’s finest is that of silence. Films such as Minari, First Cow, The Nest, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and The Assistant all used sparse dialogue and limited action to tell powerful untold tales, an unintentionally timely step back from the frantic day-to-day to focus on the characters who exist on the outskirts.
No film managed that quite as effectively, or as modestly as Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s soulful follow-up to her 2017 breakout The Rider. Both films see the Chinese director immersing herself in a rural American subculture and in both she does it so seamlessly one would assume she’s always been there, an outsider who chooses to listen first with patience and grace, unlike so many who have gone before (Zhao has previously said it gives her “the sane and necessary distance to observe things clearly and objectively”). A loose adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, it follows Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a widow whose hometown has died along with her husband, one of the many industrial fatalities of the 2008 recession. She’s been displaced (her town’s zip code was discontinued in 2011) and so decides to pack up, take her most important belongings with her in a van and go on the road.
The “houseless but not homeless” community that Fern encounters and slowly becomes a part of is one that, for many like myself, will be fascinatingly new and in her process of revealing this under-reported world to us, Zhao employs real nomads to tell their stories alongside McDormand, an act of generosity at a time when certain film-makers are gradually becoming more aware of the power of authenticity over imitation. Their involvement, and their words, help to ground the film even further, especially with such a big star in the lead, often making it feel like we’re switching between a documentary and a narrative feature (breathtaking cinematography from Zhao’s three-time collaborator Joshua James Richards frequently reminds us it’s the former). Coming straight from Three Billboards, outsider art in all of the wrong ways, McDormand is remarkable, deftly ingratiating herself with those around her without ever seeming like a two-time Oscar winner slumming it with normies, a turn as sensitive and as unpatronising as the film surrounding her. Her emotions are restrained but her predicament, told in a believably gradual way and only ever in fragments, is at first devastating before, in her resilient hands, it ultimately becomes sort of liberating, speaking not only to those who have been left gutted by a callous corporate culture but also those who are single or childless or over 60 or seen in any way as “other”. It’s a film about regaining power after feeling powerless, not by taking on the system but by removing one’s self from it entirely (scenes of her briefly returning to “normal” society have us as anxious as she is for a return to the safety of her van and the freedom of the road).
Without highlighting, bolding and underlining its themes, Nomadland subtly captures a more profound snapshot of America than any other film this year. The confines of a callous economic infrastructure might limit the space for certain people to exist within it yet the sheer expanse of the country allows them to find their own space instead.