'Nomadland': Film Review

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'

A powerful character study of a different kind of freedom fighter.

Frances McDormand plays a disenfranchised widow from a collapsed Nevada mining town who finds new life on the road in Chloé Zhao's haunting third feature.

In her two previous features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, Chloé Zhao established a spiritual connection to the American West, with its immense skies and wide-open landscapes that speak equally of desolate solitude and of freedom. Working primarily with nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves, she specializes in stories carved into the bones of her characters, their communities and the remotes spaces they inhabit. Zhao collaborates with a major-name actor for the first time in Nomadland, guiding Frances McDormand to a remarkable performance of melancholy gravitas, so rigorously unmannered she's indistinguishable from the real-life nomads with whom she shares the screen.

Premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival, the Dec. 4 Searchlight release scored the prestigious coup of being selected for all four of the major fall festivals, also including Telluride, Toronto and New York. It continues in a similar vein to Zhao's earlier work, and could almost be considered part of an informal trilogy of small, intimately observed stories set against inversely expansive backdrops.

It will be fascinating to see how much of this gifted Beijing-born, NYU-trained writer-director's signature voice remains discernible in her seemingly antithetical first studio project early next year with Marvel's Eternals. Her attachment alone makes that superhero movie a must-see.

The new film is based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which explores the reality of transient older Americans living on the road in RVs and vans, picking up seasonal work where they can find it, much like the migrant laborers of generations past. Filmed over four months on locations in Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona and California, its somber story of the resilient discards of an unforgiving economy has a lived-in authenticity that creeps up on you with stirring power and grace.

McDormand plays Fern, a stoical, hard-working widow in her early 60s who has lived her entire adult life in a company tract house provided by the United States Gypsum Corporation in Empire, Nevada. A drop in demand for sheetrock led to the closing of the mine there in 2011, and the place became a ghost town, its ZIP code discontinued within months. The fond sadness with which Fern nuzzles into her late husband's overalls as she removes her belongings from a storage locker at the start of the film speaks volumes about their marriage and his death.

What's initially most striking about the character is that while she travels around the country in a van kitted out as a compact living space, Fern refuses to let herself be defined as a casualty of economic hardship. She wants and needs to work, taking seasonal jobs on the packing line in an Amazon fulfillment center, working a beet harvest or on the janitorial staff of an RV park, for instance, despite experience that qualifies her to teach or do admin jobs. But when concerned friends offer her a roof over her head, she declines: "I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don't worry about me."

An employment counselor informing Fern that she's not suitable for anything on her books is a matter-of-fact statement of the blunt truth for many Americans for whom retirement is not an option, their numbers destined to keep growing in the current, pandemic-fueled recession. But Fern takes it in stride.

She might fit the conventional picture of the American underclass, but her dignity, her self-sufficiency and her romantic kinship with the drifters of the Old West set her apart, without obscuring her pain and vulnerability. Under Zhao's alert, compassionate gaze, that portrait extends to the many people Fern meets as she bumps along from one destination to the next.

Collaborating with her regular cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao blurs the line between narrative and vérité documentary. She frames her subjects against majestic landscapes and gorgeous watercolor sunsets but never aestheticizes nature for postcard effect. Their considerable grandeur and drama aside, these lonely roads, rugged mountains and rocky deserts are an intrinsic part of the travelers' lives, never a sightseeing panorama. A simple shot of Fern floating naked in a river, or another in which she's behind the wheel while a bison runs along beside the road, suggest the strength and independence she's drawing from nature.

There's no self-pity in the nomads' accounts of what led them away from a fixed address and onto the road. Linda May, another hardy woman in her 60s, talks about working since she was 12 and raising two daughters yet finding her Social Security was worth a pittance. Another colorful friend of Fern's, Swankie, reveals her grim cancer prognosis before recalling unforgettable encounters with nature that have made her life complete. Her wish that her friends gather to throw a rock on the fire when she's gone yields a moment both plangent and strangely uplifting.

Bob Wells, whose YouTube tutorials on van dwelling have a sizable following, sums up the credo of the mostly older nomads who make up the scattered community, many of them carrying the weight of grief and loss. He eschews final goodbyes in favor of a more upbeat "See you down the road." Scenes at one of Wells' seminar camps early on show Fern learning basic skills such as stealth parking and "how to take care of your own shit." Literally.

The film's gentle drift has echoes of a long-ago cowboy campfire trail, with strangers passing in and out of one another's lives, without barriers, trading cigarettes, sandwiches or tools, sharing stories about the trauma in their past and the tranquility they've found in open spaces. One of the loveliest examples of this involves a young off-the-grid drifter (Derek Endres) who bums a cigarette off Fern and then crosses her path again months later, opening up about himself and prompting her own tender recollection of the Shakespeare sonnet she recited as part of her wedding vows.

McDormand optioned Bruder's book, bringing Zhao on board to direct; the depth of her connection to the material is evident throughout an internalized performance that's toughened, even carefree on the surface, but allows us to glimpse the introspective churn underneath. If the movie in part is an elegy for the vanishing blue-collar communities of industrial America, it's also a defiant hymn to the outcasts of that world who survive and adapt. In McDormand's assured hands, Fern is the embodiment of that duality.

Even the more conventional narrative threads are seamlessly interwoven so as to seem organic, such as the soft flickers of attraction between Fern and mild-mannered nomad Dave (David Strathairn, understated perfection as always). Ditto when engine trouble with her vehicle, nicknamed "Vanguard," sends Fern to visit her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) for a loan. The enduring affection between them is as poignant as the distance that keeps them apart.

Both Dolly and Dave offer her a roof over her head at different points, the latter when he surprises even himself by settling into life on his son's farm and savoring the newfound pleasures of being a grandfather. In one moving scene, Fern sneaks out of the comfortable guest bedroom in the middle of the cold night to return to the familiar security of her van. Even more affecting is the pre-dawn stroll she takes through the house while contemplating Dave's offer.

The use of famed Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi's music is exemplary in guiding our access to Fern's inner life, starting with delicate piano melodies and steadily growing richer and more emotional as the movie progresses and her place in this new world becomes more certain.

Like Zhao's earlier work, Nomadland is an unassuming film, its aptly meandering, unhurried non-narrative layering impressions rather than building a story with the standard markers. But the cumulative effect of its many quiet, seemingly inconsequential encounters and moments of solitary contemplation is a unique portrait of outsider existence.

It closes with shattering eloquence as Fern casts final looks at the now-empty Nevada town, the factory and the home where she spent most of her life. Two lines from earlier scenes resonate. One is her description of the clear view from her back door across the desert to the mountains: "There was nothing in our way." The other is a saying she learned from her father: "What's remembered lives." If you ease into the pensive rhythms of Zhao's film, there's beauty, peace and even comfort to be found.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Production companies: Highwayman, Hear/Say, Cor Cordium
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres, Melissa Smith, James R. Taylor Jr., Emily Jade Foley
Director-screenwriter: Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
Producers: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey,
Chloé Zhao
Director of photography: Joshua James Richards
Production designer: Joshua James Richards
Costume designer: Hannah Logan Peterson
Music: Ludovico Einaudi
Chloé Zhao
Rated R, 108 minutes