Chloé Zhao’s valentine to the Great Outdoors totally inhabits its own world to mesmerising 



Going places: Frances McDormand and David Strathairn


Frances McDormand is a character actress who can’t help being a star. Every few years a leading role will come along and she’ll take home a bunch of trophies for it, maybe an Academy Award or two. Her latest starring vehicle – in which she is barely off-camera – is a character study the like of which we seldom see inhabited by an A-list Oscar winner. She plays the nomad of the title, Fern, who drives around the desert in her camper van, taking menial jobs here and there to pay for her gas and food. She works at an Amazon warehouse one week, and the next is a short-order cook or lavatory cleaner. Fern doesn’t seem to mind, so long as she can hop in her van and head off somewhere else when the mood takes her. And as the writer-director Chloé Zhao invites us into the nooks and crannies of Fern’s little mobile home, so McDormand lures us into Fern’s mundane daily rituals and, in the process, into her psyche. The actress is destined for another Oscar nomination, even on what seems to be a crowded distaff battleground.


Based on Jessica Bruder’s award-winning Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s film carries across the non-fictional tone of the book. Besides McDormand’s committed, authentic portrayal of a woman escaping her past (yet inexorably yoked to it), most of the other characters Fern befriends on her travels are playing themselves. A 75-year-old nomad called Swankie is a revelation, and in spite of her terse, colourful demeanour, we know she is the real thing. Zhao’s last film, The Rider (2017), also set in the Badlands of South Dakota, blurred the lines between fact and fiction as its protagonist, the brain-damaged Brady Jandreau, played a variation of himself. Chloé Zhao, who was born in Beijing, before studying film production at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, has a way with coaxing confessional performances from her players.


At the time of writing, Nomadland is the bookie’s favourite to win the best picture Oscar, although there’s still two months before the nominations are announced. What Nomadland lacks is any kind of narrative traction – or significant highlights of drama – which could prove problematic for some voters. But the film’s canny use of unique locations and pervading air of naturalism make it a constantly absorbing experience. It is genuinely transformative and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off Frances McDormand, whether she’s packing up an Amazon box, diligently gluing together the pieces of a beloved dinner plate or awkwardly cradling a friend’s grandchild. Indeed, it’s the infinitesimal moments of everyday life – such as a former student of Fern’s gingerly butchering a passage of Shakespeare – that truly beguile. Besides, Fern is a great person to spend time with. She is the real deal.




Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Peter Spears, Gay DeForest, Derek Enders.


Dir Chloé Zhao, Pro Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey and Chloé Zhao, Screenplay Chloé Zhao, from the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, Ph Joshua James Richards, Pro Des Joshua James Richards, Ed Chloé Zhao, Music Ludovico Einaudi, Costumes Hannah Peterson.


Highwayman Films/Hear/Say Productions/Cor Cordium Productions-Fox Searchlight/Walt Disney.

107 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 30 April 2021. Cert. 12A.