Five-star movie out for only two weeks

 

As two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand walks across the screen, her small frame a lonely figure against the ochres, mauves and steels of a sweeping desert backdrop, it's clear no one else could have played this role.

Whether it's the grand landscape shots or the penetrating close-ups, McDormand seems completely one with the deep humanity in Nomadland, a triumphant movie from director and screenwriter Chloe Zhao.

Zhao's thoughtful balance of majesty and intimacy makes Nomadland one of the most accomplished films of the year, an emotional tour de force that moves you but never imposes or manipulates.

Nomadland is only in cinemas for a two-week run from Boxing Day, with a wider national release delayed until March
Nomadland is only in cinemas for a two-week run from Boxing Day, with a wider national release delayed until March


Adapted from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland won the top prize at Venice Film Festival earlier this year and is right in the thick of the Oscar conversation.

Fern (McDormand) comes from a small company town in the American west whose postcode was discontinued seven months after the gypsum factory shuts in the fallout of the GFC. With her husband's recent death, there's nothing to keep her tethered to a specific place.

Perhaps initially out of necessity, Fern hits the road in a camper van, joining the throngs of "grey nomads" wandering the roads, moving from one itinerant job to another, short-term contracts that range from packing boxes at Amazon for the pre-Christmas rush to cleaning up campgrounds during summer.

 

Nomadland’s visuals are breathtaking
Nomadland’s visuals are breathtaking

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Her little van is customised not with fancy halogen lights or eco-dryers, but with beloved objects with personal history. It may be dinghy, it may be cold during those snowy nights, and bowel emergencies are at the mercy of a bucket, but it's something Fern is proud of.

She meets others in the nomad community, now friends who have embraced life on the road for various reasons, including those who don't want to spend the rest of their lives with four walls closing in on them. Among them is David (David Strathairn), a potential love interest.

Other than McDormand and Strathairn, the rest of the characters are played by non-actors, real-life nomads the production met during filming. That touch of real people brings authenticity to their presence in Nomadland and the stories they tell.

 

 

And yet, McDormand feels like one of them, a quiet and ruminative presence that seamlessly blends into Zhao's cinematic patchwork, a myriad of stories come together.

These nomads have the life they have for different reasons, and it speaks to the grace in human experiences.

It's that lived-in quality in an almost wordless McDormand performance, weighed by loss but not bitterness, which gives Nomadland so much of its raw poignancy. Even though it's affecting, it's subtle, as if you can't quite rationally pin down why but you feel it all the same.

 

Frances McDormand and David Straitharn are the few professional actors in the film
Frances McDormand and David Straitharn are the few professional actors in the film

 

Visually, every frame is infused with jaw-dropping beauty. With Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi's score as accompaniment, there's a luxury in the pairing.

It's easy to marvel in Nomadland's vast landscapes of the American west, captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. They're evocative of Kelly Reichardt's Certain Womenin the way McDormand's Fern is so naturally embedded within these almost otherworldly environs.

But perhaps what's even more impressive are the favoured, frequent close-ups of McDormand's face, unadorned, etched with her natural lines that tell of a character - and an actor - that has a history as rich as the treasured objects in Fern's van.

Fern doesn't feel created, she feels born.

Rating: 5/5

Nomadland is in select cinemas for a limited two-week run from Boxing Day with a wider national release from March 4

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Originally published as Five-star movie out for only two weeks


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