When last we heard from Chinese American director Chloe Zhao, she directed the 2017 indie “The Rider” – in which non-actors essentially played themselves in a heartwarming story about a rodeo rider and his horse. It was a sleeper hit and appeared on many critics’ Top Ten lists that year – including mine.
Now, Zhao has done it again, with “Nomadland,” another deliberately paced, authentically American story of loneliness, survival, and finding companionship in unique circumstances. The acutely versatile Frances McDormand plays Fern – a woman who has recently lost her husband (to an early death) and her job (when the United States Gypsum Corporation shut down the local gypsum plant, necessarily rendering Empire, Nevada a modern-day ghost town). Fern picks up a temp job packaging parcels for Amazon during the holiday rush, but then the holidays end. Since she can’t pay rent, she lives out of her van.
A friend recommends Fern take up the nomad lifestyle. Apparently, this is not completely uncommon in the American West – particularly in these tough economic times. Hundreds of nomads live in vehicles and traverse the sparsely-populated West – taking jobs as they become available and meeting up with one another at various cookouts and campgrounds. It’s an actual way of life, and one with which most of us are unfamiliar.
Leave it to the highly talented McDormand to navigate us through this unusual culture. As are her other characters, Fern is grounded in the harsh reality of a sometimes-difficult life; but Fern encompasses just enough a sense of awe and wonder as to make her conversion to the nomad existence purely believable. We find ourselves wholeheartedly supporting Fern, even though most of us would not choose such a method of survival.
And Zhao, who adapted the screenplay from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 novel, continues to grow as a brilliant director of independently heroic American stories. The vast landscapes are astonishing, although in a strictly pragmatic manner – unlike the picture-perfect postcard panorama of the American West we often see in Robert Redford’s films, like “A River Runs Through It.” Even though we’re in the midst of the worst pandemic in U.S. history, “Nomadland” is one that begs to be seen in the theatre. It’s a beautiful, calculated film, with long stretches of Fern simply living – existing, as it were, while we watch spellbound at the unique cinematic treat before us.
It’s difficult to compare “Nomadland” to any other film. I suppose David Lynch’s 1999 saga, “The Straight Story” comes closest. That was the road-trip bio about a man who drove his garden tractor across Iowa to see his brother before he died. While “Nomadland” is more a character study, and less episodic than “The Straight Story,” it encompasses that same sense of the land as beauty, and its inhabitants as merely its temporary caretakers.
As in “The Rider,” almost every character in “Nomadland” is played by actual people – actual nomads, in this case. Character actor David Strathairn is the only other familiar face in the cast. Zhao affords the others the opportunity to introduce us to another layer of American existence about which most of us know nothing. Nomads are not homeless, as Fern explains to a relative. They are simply “houseless.” And they are comfortable with this reality. When Fern visits her sister in South Dakota (after a year as a nomad), we sense her discomfort amongst the predictable confines of suburban living. A small voice inside Fern is itching to hit the road.
But don’t get the impression “Nomadland” is an adventure movie. It’s a quiet, dreamlike hymn to America and its vagabonds. And it’s a complete change from McDormand’s often brash and bossy characters. The only role McDormand can’t play is the beautiful ingenue – and even then, she’d probably find a way to pull it off.
Zhao has created a modern-day masterpiece, and one of this year’s best films. When Fern says “goodbye” to her house and her town, it’s almost as touching as little Jack saying goodbye to his shed at the conclusion of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room.” I loved everything about “Nomadland,” and unlike most pictures I see, I can’t wait to watch this one again.