Dir. Chloé Zhao; Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie
[4 out of 4 stars]
Perhaps my favorite part about Nomadland (2021) is its gentleness. Moments of clarity do not culminate in booming crescendos, and nothing is too dramatic or overdone. In this way, director Chloé Zhao redefines what it means to make a grand, Hollywood movie that is cinematic in scope but not heavy-handed in its method. The film builds its message slowly, and once we realize the degree to which pain and grief color the story, all of our attention and patience are rewarded.
Fern (Frances McDormand) is the heart of Nomadland , a woman grieving both the loss of her husband and her hometown. The gypsum plant in Empire, NV shut down in 2011 as the result of a reduced need for sheetrock, and shortly after that, its zip code was discontinued. The town’s residents dispersed, including Fern, who now lives in a refurbished van she named Vanguard. She picks up work here and there, often at an Amazon warehouse, sometimes cooking at local restaurants or helping with Nevada’s beet harvest. Fern meanders throughout the country, from Arizona to California, meeting up with groups of other nomads along the way, including Dave (David Strathairn) and real-life nomads Swankie, Linda May, and Bob Wells. But as Fern tells her former tutee, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. That’s not the same thing, right?” As one Amazon worker’s tattoo reads, “Is home really a place or something you carry with you?”
That complex question is at the center of Zhao’s film, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book. While many of us love the idea of quitting our jobs and hitting the open road, most of the people Fern meets are coming to terms with something: a Vietnam vet with PTSD, a woman whose neighbor died right before retirement so “he missed out on everything,” a friend dying of lung cancer who decides “I didn’t want to spend any more time indoors in a hospital.” Still, there are others who want to get rid of “the tyranny of the dollar” that we are forced to “live by our whole lives.” Zhao makes sure to highlight that there are a myriad of reasons why someone becomes a nomad. Some appear to feel lost, while others are right at home in their van. Zhao does not milk any of this for our benefit. Her approach is pure empathy. She simply shows us how nomads live, talks to them, presents their lives — from playing the flute alone in a van to using a five-gallon bucket as a toilet — and lets us come to our own conclusions. The score consists of nothing more than a few piano instrumentals, and the set is open and simple. There is no judgement or poor-you sympathy in her interpretation, but there is a delicacy and curiosity in her approach, which she uses to show people onscreen who are rarely featured in movies.
McDormand is present in every scene, and I cannot imagine another actor in her place. She has spoken to the New York Times about how intimate and personal this film was for her; her character’s name is eerily close to her own, her last name in the film also begins with “MCD,” and Zhao even suggested at one point that they cast her real-life husband Joel Cohen as her onscreen husband (they didn’t). As a result, McDormand’s role feels wholly lived-in, even more so than her other roles already do. (Apparently some of the nomads McDormand met while filming didn’t know she was a famous actor and assumed she was one of them). Despite the grief and pain that Fern deals with, it’s a different sort than we’ve seen McDormand exhibit before. There is no rage or guilt here, as in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Fern is a tough drifter, the sort of role often delegated to men, but she is not hard, as some of her other roles (Abby in Blood Simple  or Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards) have been; she is open and kind with everyone she meets. Her 63-year-old face is beautifully rugged and expressive, especially when bathed with the pink golden-hour light Zhao favors. It’s a performance that at first seems pared-down: there is no screaming or sobbing as Fern grapples with her grief, and she never raises her voice. But this quiet performance is nonetheless engaging as we pay attention and notice exactly how much McDormand is doing with every single scene, even quick daily life shots without any dialogue. In one, she sits alone in her van eating dinner on New Year’s Eve, wearing a plastic Happy New Year headband; as fireworks pop in the background, she reaches up to carefully adjust it. In another scene, she runs away from a tour group to scamper around a national park’s craggy landscape like a mountain goat. It’s truly exquisite work that encourages us to confront the meandering paths our lives will take, and how much power we have over that direction.
My one complaint with the film is the casting of Strathairn as Dave since his performance never felt completely true or believable. Perhaps that’s because he was opposite McDormand and real-life nomads and the bar was too high, but I never stopped seeing him as a movie star only pretending to be a rough nomad. However, that is my sole critique of Zhao’s beautiful film, one that asks us to reflect on where we are in our lives and where we want to be and reminds us that those we lose are never really gone — we’ll see them down the road.