As I write this, Nomadland has just lived up to the buzz by winning three of the Oscar biggies:  Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress in a Leading Role. 

For Frances McDormand it’s a trifecta.  A double trifecta, you might say.  It’s her third Best Actress Oscar in a Best Picture Oscar-winner.  Her previous wins were for Fargo in 1996 and for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2018.    

Is she that good?  Was the movie that good? 

Nomadland is a zeitgeist-nailing movie that centres on Fern, a 61-year-old widow who hits the road in an old van after the company town in Nevada where she and her late husband lived and worked shuts down.  

The film is based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, a journalist who spent three months in a camper van driving thousands of miles across America documenting the lives of itinerant Americans looking for seasonal work in the post-GFC era. 

I didn’t rush off to see this movie even when it first opened at my local boutique cinema just under a year ago, way ahead of big-screen venues elsewhere in the country and around the world, because I was a bit wary of McDormand’s presence, having last seen her in Three Billboards, a film whose moral ambivalence to violence and vengeance I found sat uneasily alongside the strong feminist message.

When I read about Nomadland I couldn’t shake off the feeling that a bandwagon was about to start rolling.  Not that McDormand isn’t a good actor.  But – and I tremble in fear of slighting an anointed Hollywood darling here – she seems to always play the same flinty motherly type that we first saw on the big screen (at least I did) in Fargo.  Fern in Nomadland could be Marge Gunnerson in Fargo.  Or Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards, albeit without Marge’s cheerfulness.   

As it turned out, Nomadland wasn’t as gloomily in tune with post-Trump wokeness as I had feared it might be, but paradoxically this might be one of its failings.  I read a very interesting user review which accuses the movie of downplaying the miseries and discomforts of life on the road, pointing out that all the people Fern meets as she goes about looking for work or for help in fixing her van are friendly and supportive, even poetic and thoughtful in the case of her fellow-travellers, whereas this is emphatically not the case, according to this reviewer.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

That said, Fern’s optimism and lack of self-pity make her plight and the movie easier to watch.  She makes the best of things.  She’s not homeless, just temporarily houseless, she tells a concerned inquirer.  It’s even suggested that she prefers life on the road and the memory of her beloved late husband to the possibility of a new life with a very presentable suitor in the bosom of his nice loving family in their very nice farmhouse. 

The sentimental piano-led soundtrack music adds to the general air of romanticism, but I suppose those bleak wintry landscapes of the northern Midwest needed a bit of warmth and colour.  The cinematography, incidentally, reminds us just how grand and awe-inspiring these rugged, least-populated parts of the United States are, and it picked up a well-deserved Oscar nomination.   

I think the Best Director Oscar is the most deserved of the three.  Another of the good things about Nomadland, apart from the cinematography, is that with the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn, who plays potential love interest Dave, most of the characters we get to know are real people playing themselves.  This is quite an achievement, and it is so seamlessly and artfully done that you really can’t tell who’s a pro and who’s an amateur.  All down to the director, Chinese-born Chloe Zhao.  Fun fact: she’s only the second woman to win the Best Director Oscar (the first being Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2009), and the first ‘woman of colour’ to do so, according to those who value the new virtues of diversity and inclusiveness.  Whatever.  She won on merit. 

Chloe Zhao

Grumpy postscript:  Fern is 61.  Peter Craven writing in The Australian calls her an ‘elderly’ character! It’s high time we had a serious debate about the word ‘elderly’.  I say it should only refer to frailty and doddering-ness, not to a set number of years.  Harrumph.