In her elegiac and emotionally captivating new movie Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao opens with a curious title card about a small city in Nevada named Empire. It’s a remote town so driven by a single industry that when the local sheetrock plant closes down in 2011 after 88 years in business, the entire town was evacuated and the ZIP code was literally abandoned not long afterwards.
Among those displaced by the devastating closure is Fern (Frances McDormand), who doesn’t have much need to stay after the recent passing of her husband. She finds a new partner, of sorts, in a van she dubs Vanguard, which carries the remainder of her belongings that she hasn’t sold off or holed up in a storage unit.
With jobs being scarce as a result of The Great Recession, Fern travels from one Southwest city to another, meeting other nomads like herself and adapting to their mutual lifestyle in the process.
What makes Zhao’s film so slyly remarkable is just how lived-in and genuine each aspect of her story feels as it unfolds before us. As in her previous work, the also excellent The Rider, she surrounds the protagonist with real-life figures playing modestly fictionalized versions of themselves. Among the challenges of creating a sprawling picture as this is, I would imagine it’s quite difficult to fill your movie with a bevy of non-actors, but Zhao gets bonafide performances out of each and every one of them.
Also serving as the film’s editor, Zhao has a brilliant instinct for how to cut conversations together where sentences may overlap but every word still registers and resonates. There’s a pace and rhythm to the dialogue in Nomadland that you just won’t see anywhere else.
Credit for the naturalistic exchanges also extends to McDormand, giving an understated performance that is necessarily more reactive and reflexive but no less compelling as a result. As a bereft wayfarer still acclimating to her changing circumstances, she reveals Fern’s empathetic nature while letting us in on her sadness little bits at a time. It’s a much different role than the one for which she most recently scored a Best Actress Oscar, the incendiary Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which openly wore its anger and bitterness on its sleeve. McDormand suggests Fern could possess similar resentment but sublimates it into savvy survival skills and a sturdy work ethic that allows her to pick up hands-on labor nearly everywhere she goes, even while work is difficult for others to find.
Adapting from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, whose subtitle Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century pitches it as a how-to guide, Zhao doesn’t graft a complex narrative onto Nomadland. A more pedestrian storyteller would have telegraphed a redemption arc or a series of inorganic obstacles for our heroine to overcome, but Zhao knows that it’s more than enough for us to simply spend time with these nomads and hear them out. We learn about their way of life, from the Ten Commandments of Stealth Parking to bucket-based tips that I shouldn’t delve into here.
While some were driven out of their homes, others choose the mobile lifestyle for their own reasons. Just as they don’t judge one another, Zhao asks the same of us in the audience.
As the theatrical experience continues to experience setback after setback, there’s no movie I’ve seen in the last 12 months that made me wish I was watching it in a theater more than this one. While I might typically expect that sentiment to arise from an effects blockbuster rather than a $5 million awards drama, I’ll take the golden hour desert vistas captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards over the fussed-over frames of a spandex superhero showdown any day. Hopefully sometime soon, I would love to see the images of this film illuminate the big screen when it’s safe to go back to our beleaguered multiplexes.
A stunning meditation on transience and trauma, Nomadland is a patient and perceptive portrait of people who are rarely, if ever, given the chance to represent themselves in the movies.
Also New to Streaming This Weekend
Debuting on Netflix is I Care a Lot, a dark comedy starring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage about a woman who makes her living stealing from the elderly by deceiving judges into appointing her as their “legal guardian.”
Swooping in on Disney+ is Flora & Ulysses, a family superhero comedy starring Matilda Lawler and Danny Pudi about the adventures of a young girl and her adopted squirrel who has superpowers.
Available to digitally rent is Silk Road, a based-on-a-true-story thriller starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson about the tech mastermind behind Silk Road, a dark web page that sells narcotics, and the DEA agent tasked with taking him down.