Movie Review | ‘Nomadland’ to ‘The Eternals’: a Chloé Zhao tale

Editor’s notes: Enjoy this spoiler-free review of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. It boasts six nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards for directing, editing, adapted screenplay, also, for cinematography and Frances McDormand’s performance in a leading role. The prize-giving event will take place on April 26, 2021, 2:00 AM GMT+2


Written by John Jeremiah
Twitter :
TheRebelGriot


Nomadland poster via Searchlight pictures

Before Chloé Zhao’s 2020 piece began its Oscar run, it had already won the 77th Golden Lion award at Venice for Best Film, recently adding Best Director and Best Drama Motion Picture at the Golden Globes Awards. These previous honours  made it possible for it to be an Oscar nominated film not to be overlooked in this year’s race. 

The movie spans over the journey of Oscar winning actress Frances McDormand, who appears as Fern, and Vanguard (her van) as they navigate through the U.S of A West looking for jobs and ways to make a living. Fern hasn’t always been a Nomad, she just decided to pack her things up and hit the road when the United States Gypsum had to shut down its “Empire” plant due to low demand. Fern never looks back again or does she?

The movie is about nothing and everything at the same time. It has no explosions and the characters are not running around trying to save the world. The visual effects in the movie might probably be hard for most people to spot, that’s how it’s about nothing spectacular. It is about everything in the sense that it explored themes that revolve around relationship ties, such as family and friendship. 

The acting is so natural that it feels like the movie is a documentary. This could be coupled with the fact that almost everyone in the movie appeared as themselves (as real-life nomads) save for Frances McDormand and three other cast members. Regardless of that fact, the film is an adaptation of a 2017 book, ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’ by Jessica Bruder.

Anyways, Zhao is known for using locals and semi-amateurs for her movies. She did this in Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017). Zhao encourages natural performance from her cast by getting them emotionally vested in the story and often starring as themselves. However, we won’t be seeing her use semi professionals for Marvel Studio’s The Eternals for which she is the director and has Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Kit Harrington and his Game of thrones sibling, Richard Madden starring. The Eternals is slated for release in November 2021. 

Chloé Zhao, brain behind Nomadland via IndieWire

Zhao’s 2020 piece resonates chasing one’s dream but without the grandeur most attach to chasing dreams. Most believe every dream chased should probably have them ending up as money bags and what not. Fern’s journey through the deserts and plains of the USA West has the audience asking themselves about what matters to them and if they are willing to live with the consequences of going after them. 

Fern and the rest of the nomads make a strong argument for the minimalist life they have chosen. It is something that couldn’t have been gotten with the comfort a roof puts over heads. Sadly, Fern and most of the characters in this movie realize this much later in their lives. 

Fern’s case, however, is much more complicated as her sense of duty towards her partner kept her still. It took the shutting down of the factory to get her on the road, almost like she had been waiting for the moment. Much more than exploring themes that touch family and friendship, this movie dwells heavily on loss. The loss of job, family, stability, lover and friends are all explored. It’s interesting to see how most of the characters respond to some of these as they encounter them, which all makes up for a great healing and emotional journey.

Fern during her first session at the Nomads convention via Searchlight Pictures.

The music and songs are so beautifully done that it doesn’t call attention to itself. The music by Ludovico  Einaudi is particularly goosebump wrecking as they awesomely add textures and layers to the characters that Chloé Zhao has painted. I think the music in the ending sequence elaborates how great the song and music  in this movie are all excellent choices.

The long shots of Fern in Quartzsite, Arizona during the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (a gathering of nomads) are a delight to see. The cinematography was helmed by James Richards, he was also the cinematographer for her other documentary-styled movies. The scenes where she is seen swimming, screaming from a mountain peak and strolling through an abandoned town are really soothing to see, seeing the joy and peace Fern has found from her newly chosen lifestyle.

While some of Fern’s family and friends might see a ‘houseless’ person, the character that we see on screen is a resolute woman who is ready to bear the consequences that comes with that decision.

Rating: 8/10

Side Musings

  • In a world where productivity is highly priced, premium should be placed on those who would not be able to carry on with their service due to old age. It’s very appalling for one to work all their lives and at the end of their service realize that they can’t even afford a roof over their heads. Whatever economic approach, be it communism, socialism or capitalism as was portrayed in this movie, if it is not done in the service of people, it is always wrong. The social net for elderly people really needs to be cast wide and effectively done so people in their old age wouldn’t have to see hitting the road as a default.
  • There’s this scene where Linda May talks about the different ways she had planned to commit suicide but couldn’t bring herself to do it because of her pets. She said “I couldn’t do that to them, I couldn’t do that to myself either.”
  • There is also this scene wherein Fern’s friends left her to continue on their path. She is seen in this bar where there is a man playing the grand piano but he does it marvelously and interestingly well. Toast! to the ones who had to leave!!!
  • All Marvel fans should watch this piece in anticipation of the November release of The Eternals
  •  Zhao puts her brilliance to use as she shows the time period of Nomadland  by sneaking in a ‘The Avengers’ reference. During one of Fern’s walk in a town, she is seen walking past a cinema showing The Avengers (2012)
  • Regardless, one can’t but be eager to see how she brings her style of filmmaking to Marvel superhero movie, The Eternals, which is currently in post production. 

Nomadland is currently available in select cinemas and on Hulu.


John Jeremiah is an art lover who just wants to watch films and be taken care of.  If he isn’t seeing something, he’s probably reading or eating okpa.

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