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‘Nomadland’ Review: Frances McDormand ventures west in a lament and tender celebration of America’s final frontiers

The third movie from Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao blurs the line between fiction and reality, and is one of 2020's best.
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

For as much as blockbusters have numbed us to meaningless country-hopping – swift teleportation from Paris to Hong Kong to New York City that doesn’t emphasize narrative so much as the depths of movie studios’ pockets – there’s something that’s still curious, disarming and ultimately erudite about the constant changing of locale in Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.” An earnest portrait of a country and a subtle inquiry into the direction it’s been heading, “Nomadland” shepherds us to snow-capped mountain ranges and dry plains, derelict towns and lonely roads, redwood forests and gulf-stream waters. Traversing these spaces – captured with an awe and necessary sense of majesty by cinematographer Joshua James Richards – is Frances McDormand’s Fern, and it’s in her that “Nomadland” emphasizes the truth in that American hymn’s most important lyric, as well as its contradiction: This land may be made for you and me, but what about the structures physical and economic raised over more and more of that land? Who are they for?

Zhao, who wrote, directed and edited “Nomadland,” explores the question with the same sharpened empathy she deployed in her previous works, 2015’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and 2017’s “The Rider”—films which “Nomadland” has as much in common with as it doesn’t. Here is the same evocative connection with environment and near-religious considerations of individual purpose, but while “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider” featured young protagonists loyal to the places they were raised, “Nomadland” sees a retirement-age Fern constantly on the move, and perhaps on the chase. It’s also the entry in Zhao’s filmography that fully embraces what’s been more or less only implied in her movies thus far: the vitality of community, and the molding of perspective about a place from the hands of those who inhabit it. Judging from where her first trio of movies (you could make the case they’re a trilogy) start and where they go, Zhao may as well be providing her mission statement through the advice of one of her latest film’s displaced sages: “I think connecting to nature – to a community and a tribe – will make all the difference for you.” In “Nomadland,” it takes a village to raise the courage to reflect, and to confront.

Zhao’s screenplay (based off Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”) dispenses the idea of home as a physical tether early, informing us about a country squeezing some of its denizens out by the literal “discontinuation” of Empire, Nevada’s zip code in 2011, following the recession-hastened shutdown of a local sheetrock factory. From that cataclysmic bit of setup we meet Fern – as quiet and contemplative as the movie surrounding her – transferring items from a storage unit into her van as she prepares to venture forth...to a seasonal stint at an Amazon warehouse, resembling a daunting corporate fortress shadowing the surrounding landscape. Images of Fern going about her duties (she insists she likes to work, and we believe her sincerity) merge seamlessly with a sequence that sees the camera attending a lunch break explanation about a coworker’s tattoos—an improvisational-seeming flourish that Zhao will return to over the course of a movie that beautifully textures Fern’s journey with the humanistic details of those she comes across.

Once the Amazon tenure ends, Fern, living out of her van at this point (“I’m not homeless, just houseless,” she says), hits the road to search for more work. We get the sense she’s also out to prove something, and not just that she isn’t one for the sedentary life. Pay close attention to when Zhao reaches into a reserve of deep, near-meditative quiet: She inquisitively pulls the threads of Fern’s backstory over nearly two hours, and it’s due to her astonishingly graceful direction, as well as McDormand’s instincts, that the mystery of Fern’s background doesn’t overshadow the film’s moment-to-moment wonders.

And what rich wonders they are, coming in the form of an absorbingly patient pace; a juxtaposition of cosmic eventualities and earthbound ultimatums; the gradual reveal of thematic complexity bordering on the infinite; the sly way the movie is both lament and tender celebration; the genteel ease with which its star actress blends into a reality-informed context of rugged survivalism. What McDormand does in “Nomadland” is a welcome change of pace, in this critic’s eyes, from the take-no-prisoners causticity of her Mildred in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri”; her latest performance, one of subtle shifts and whispered complexity, suggests more than it insists. And her presence is something of a novelty for Zhao, whose films tend to glide along on a realism magnified by their casts’ relative ambiguity. Seeing McDormand might at first contradict Zhao’s documentary-like attraction to the American West and those who inhabit it, but “Nomadland” comes to accentuate a characteristic of the “Fargo” actress that is fascinatingly at odds with her A-list status—she has an uncanny everydayness about her, a rare sheen of ordinary that contradicts her icon status in the industry as much as it’s part of the reason she attained it.

It suits McDormand perfectly as Fern. Shambling past other nomads’ camp sites and tending to her work with a steeliness (that still allows room for her trademark prickliness), McDormand becomes a window into a slowly eroding side of America that Zhao is investigating. In Fern’s interactions with the film’s many other protagonists – it doesn’t do to call them tangential figures – “Nomadland” uncovers a philosophy of human endurance as if it were a sociological endeavor. That may not be entirely inaccurate; characters like Linda and Bob and the unforgettable Swankie are portrayed by real people named Linda and Bob and Swankie who really do travel a post-recession America in retrofitted vans, making do with what they have while contending with the remedial tasks you or I take for granted. And they do so with a full-bodied spirit that’s just as much a rebuke to the so-called advancement that took their jobs and homes. Some of the most stirring moments in the film emphasize the unspoken bond these avatars have created in discussions ranging from the formal (an upbeat seminar on which bucket is best to rid bodily waste in) to the ultrapersonal (an intimate confession of terminal cancer). They’re symbols of resilience, and as much the movie’s soul as Fern is.

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Because the movie doesn’t fuss about particulars beyond those which dictate Fern’s success and obstacles on the road, it wasn’t until around the start of the third act that I realized we haven’t been made privy to her route. There is no distracting map graphic with a dotted trail showing her path, no location cards cluing us in to her stops—and the movie is all the better for refusing to dilly-dally with those logistical tropes, instead embracing the power of Richards’s gorgeous cinematography and elegiac piano melodies of Ludovico Einaudi’s score. But as we watch Fern systematically go from job to job –cleaning campground bathrooms, selling rocks somewhere, shoveling rocks elsewhere – the story’s forward momentum comes into focus. And when she quietly slips out of an opportunity at what we may deem another chance at stability, it becomes undeniable. If “Nomadland” is about the traversal of space, the rhythm of its filmmaking also magnifies the passage of time; and Zhao turns time into a dimension that demands to be scrutinized, insofar as Fern’s relationship to it. With every elegantly captured vista she comes across and with every mesmeric purple sunset sky she strolls alongside, the eventual question of whether her constant mobility is fueled by liberation or escape becomes more complicated to answer. What might be most incredible about watching “Nomadland” is how organically we begin to contend with something Fern isn’t yet willing to confront: The road she’s on will end eventually. And at that point, there’s only the road back.

The characteristics of unhurried narratives and quiet-spoken characters make enticing to compare Zhao with a contemporary, Kelly Reichardt, and the pairing is even more appropriate considering their newest works. In Reichardt’s “First Cow,” also a 2020 release, as with “Nomadland,” every good intention is the result of institutional hierarchy—both movies simmer with quiet rage (or at least an arched eyebrow) against capitalistic systems in ways that don’t overburden us so much as prod us into thinking about how societies functions, and who they really serve. That Amazon factory may be a heavy-handed sight in “Nomadland,” but it also suggests an immediacy, and represents a first hint that the film can’t be categorized as mere narrative fiction.

That conflict is summed up by one fellow nomad’s remarks as she explores a massive RV that may as well be a mansion (watch out for the automatic steps!), with Fern at the wheel and fantasizing about a destination: “Anywhere but the east coast,” she says. “There’s no space for something of this size.” They’re referring to the vehicle, but we also understand there’s no room for souls as bountiful as these. And so the magnificent West is where they venture—where the loudest sign of disruption is a highway’s distant rumble, where stars glisten in the absence of modernity’s thorny halo and where the last pioneers can be found in a place they never intended to be.

"Nomadland" is rated R for some full nudity. It will play for one week in virtual cinemas beginning Friday before a February theatrical release. 

Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn Linda May, Bob Wells

Directed by Chloé Zhao

2020

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