The Visual Mastery Of Nomadland – Review

How To Successfully Achieve Show Don’t Tell Storytelling

If you’ve ever been to film school, read a filmmaking book, or watched any video from professional filmmakers about filmmaking then you’re probably familiar with the phrase Show, don’t tell. For those who are not aware this concept speaks to utilising the visual aspect of the medium to tell your story above dialogue and some of the best films ever made do this really well. Nomadland directed by Chloe Zhao is one of those films. Winning Best Picture and Best Director this year at the Oscars, as well as the Golden Globes, Nomadland is a true pinnacle of show don’t tell storytelling, but it won’t be for everyone.

Fern turns to a life as a modern-day nomad when her hometown is abandoned due to a factory closure. Traveling across the American midwest living in a van Fern learns how to deal with loss and discovers the true meaning of human connection. The cinematography is stunning making the barren landscapes Fern traverses true depictions of nature’s beauty. Each scene invoking some serious wanderlust, particularly during this pandemic. The washed-out blue and orange tones providing a middle ground for cold and warm simultaneously allowing the environments to speak both languages when necessary. Frances McDormand gives a spectacularly natural and believable performance as Fern. A character with many underlying complexities, not all explored within the scope of the film’s story. The themes of loss, belonging and connection are evident through her journey but nothing ever feels forced. I would attribute this to the style of the film, which sits somewhere between a documentary and a scripted drama.

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

Most of the film uses people portraying themselves with only a handful of actors, the camera uses a handheld style typical of documentary filmmaking particularly cinema verite, and each section of the story is like a vignette or window into a part of Fern’s life rather than a series of compiling events leading to a climax and subsequent resolution. For these reasons, the film’s genre is hard to pin down but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Whilst a fictional story about someone who doesn’t exist the people she meets do exist and the lifestyle she leads is one that real people have. Nomadland’s genre-bending style is why this film can successfully tell its story. With more actors, the story would become disingenuous and as a documentary, the empathy may not have been as poignant as it is here. The combined style allows Fern to become someone we are interested in and this interest introduces us to the real-world aspects of her journey.

That said there is no tension in this film. At least not in the way typical movie-going audiences have come to recognise. There are the complications of living a life out of one’s van, of interacting with other people, of dealing with our own internal thoughts and feelings; but this is a film driven by introspect and most of the film’s story happens within the subtext. It moves at the pace of life; slow. Though some may feel it is drawn out a faster pace wouldn’t suit the film’s purpose. For some of these reasons, I know that this film will not appeal to some but for me it allows Nomadland to be the pinnacle of visual storytelling. It’s not trying to cheapen itself by spelling things out which I believe can be the detriment of many modern films. You take what you want to take from this tale. Like a true piece of art, its meanings and relevance are up to you.

If you are the type of movie watcher that appreciates a film told through the visuals and don’t mind doing a little brain work to fill in the gaps then Nomadland will be your kind of film. If you don’t like films with slow burns or stories that aren’t full of action then this probably won’t be your cup of tea. Regardless of what kind of entertainment you like to consume it is hard to argue that Nomadland doesn’t do what it set out to achieve and executes that to a professional and stunningly visual degree.

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