The late great film critic Roger Ebert famously said, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” No other film I’ve seen this year has evoked such empathetic feelings in me than Nomadland. I knew within the first ten minutes of watching Chloé Zhao’s followup to her fantastic feature, The Rider, that I would turn around and watch it all over again immediately.
Based on the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, the film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a recently widowed woman in her sixties living in the economically depressed town of Empire, Nevada. At the outset, she puts most of her belongings in storage, loads up her small van with essentials and heads out on the open road to join the burgeoning itinerant, seasonal gig economy of recession-addled 2011. With thick skin yet a warm smile, Fern yearns to work hard. Although she needs help every now and then, she firmly pushes back on anyone who tries to sympathize with her. Hopping from jobs at an Amazon fulfillment center, a janitorial position in a camper park, to fry cooking fast food, Fern specifically calls herself houseless instead of homeless. She makes sure people know she has made a choice and will not play the victim.
We follow Fern for a little over a year, often in quick snippets of scenes, and often with very little dialogue. McDormand does a beautiful job of seamlessly blending in with a cast of non-professionals, most of whom play versions of themselves. In fact, she took an actual job at Amazon at one point. McDormand, who optioned Bruder’s novel and acted as one of the producers of the film, must have known that she’s one of the few truly authentic actors who could pull off this character. Stripped of vanity, ego, and pretense we see in so many stars, McDormand oozes no-nonsense directness in every frame. In the past, she has typically leaned into a tough-as-nails persona, yet here she may suffer no fools, but she also displays enormous compassion and kindness. Look at how she interacts with a young kid who bums a cigarette off of her and inspires her to recite her wedding speech. You feel how much she misses her husband yet know she can still find happiness somehow. It made me fall in love with McDormand in a whole new way, with this, for me, being her career best performance. The plaintive, gorgeous, piano-driven score by Ludovico Einaudi accompanies Fern every step of the way, bringing us closer and closer to the heart of this incredible person.
Like The Rider, Zhao employs a documentary style to her filmmaking, along with techniques reminiscent of Terrence Malick and Kelly Reichardt, yet her style feels warmer, almost to the edge of sentimental, without getting all gooey. From beginning to end, I simply felt Fern, naked, sometimes literally, raw, filled with haunted memories which shine through in her eyes. She’s part of a growing section of the population, most middle-aged and beyond, who “make it work”.
Fern stays for a while with a community of “nomads” led by Bob Wells, a real life YouTuber with a large following who provides endless tips on cheap ways to live out of your vehicle. Playing himself, Bob doesn’t pretend to have all the answers for Fern, but he gives her a sense of identity in her difficult journey. She also notably encounters two women who have a deep effect on her. One named Linda May gives her many tips on navigating jobs in this new world, while Swankie, played by Charlene Swankie, stops the movie cold for a mini-master class of a monologue about her ability to love life despite her many struggles. You won’t find a purer display of acting in which a person communicates their entire existence with such clarity and heart. It’s THE movie moment of 2020 and something I watched over and over. Fern gets a love interest in the form of Dave (David Strathairn), another actor who never seems to act, but just IS the characters he plays. Their storyline could have easily hijacked the narrative and planted it firmly in some too familiar tropes, but Zhao, who wrote, directed and edited this film, has the smarts to know exactly what she wants to convey, and hack moves don’t seem to exist in her vocabulary.
Zhao gets considerable assistance from her mainstay cinematographer, Joshua James Richards. Filled with both great beauty and impoverished realism, his images give the film a grand, epic scale while also feeling warmly intimate. The way he frames McDormand against landscapes or moves in on her face, tells the story better than paragraphs of dialogue ever could.
Nomadland feels like a movie of its time, with its depiction of tough Americans making do in an unstable world. It transcends this, however, by carving an unforgettable path for this average woman, unapologetically on her own, getting it done. In the past, a film of this ilk would have found a conventional path for someone like Fern. Carrots get dangled here and there, but Fern discovers, through all of her challenges, what glorious meaning one can derive from simply surviving. In doing so, she honors these unsung strugglers who represent the backbone of this country. Nomadland is a masterpiece.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Nomadland opens for a limited run December 4th – 11th in the Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema, and will open wide on February 19th 2021. No streaming details have been announced as yet. Put this on your must-see list for what I predict will be the Best Picture Oscar Winner.