One of the most hotly anticipated films of this festival season finally premiered today. Written for the screen, directed and edited by Chloé Zhao and starring the incomparable Frances McDormand, NOMADLAND is an ode to the people we’ve met, the places we’ve been, and the countless restless souls that roam the great American heartland. It’s a profoundly moving, often unbearably beautiful piece of cinema that will nourish your mind and break your heart.
Following the economic collapse of a historic mine in Nevada, the entire town surrounding it is shut down and all residents are forced to relocate, including Fern (McDormand), who has built a life there with her deceased husband. At her age, Fern is too old to be considered employable and too young for retirement. To get by, she starts living in her van while temping at an Amazon warehouse with her friend Linda May (played by herself). When that job ends, Linda introduces Fern to a support group for RV inhabitants organized by Bob Wells (played by himself), where she finds kindred spirits from all over and begins her own nomadic existence.
The film is eventful but follows no plot trajectory in the traditional sense. People meet, drift apart, reconnect and go their separate ways again. You can hardly pin down the “writing” as everything seems to happen organically with the merciful randomness of life. This strips the film of artificiality and turns it into something of an experience. After a while you can’t even tell if these are characters you are seeing or just plain people. But that’s the brilliance of Zhao’s screenplay. Without jeopardizing this precious authenticity, it weaves a very subtle narrative through the film to give it shape, so that within the confines of 108 minutes, we get a vividly contextualized portrayal of a woman’s journey. The way she informs us of who Fern is through her relationships with Linda, with camp buddy Swankie, her sister Dolly and love interest Dave (David Strathairn) is evidence of highly skilled, restrained writing.
What’s probably even more impressive than Zhao’s words is her direction, because NOMADLAND feels utterly alive. Everything from the sets to the interactions of the actors to the emotions revealed on film feels real. Miraculously, stupefyingly real. There’s such a naturalistic flow to it all that I had to actively remind myself numerous times that what I’m seeing is staged, performed on camera, and edited together. Which hardly seems possible. Of course we’ve all seen what Zhao can do on THE RIDER, but this is taking realist cinema to the next level. With NOMADLAND, you don’t watch it so much as witness it, live it. The spell of immersion is unbroken, the illusion is complete.
An invaluable asset in that regard are the actors, led by two-time Oscar winner McDormand who gives the performance of a lifetime and adds another iconic role to her illustrious filmography. Fern is a tough cookie, she’s quick, resilient, fiercely independent. But she’s also kind, empathetic and above all decent. McDormand hits all those notes and then some in her perfectly calibrated portrayal of a lonely survivor. She wears the lines on her face like a proud map of memory just as Fern would. She inhabits the particular physicality of the character with no apparent effort. And she does these facial expressions that probably only two-time Oscar winners know how, stabbing you right in the heart with such pangs of recognition that render any words unnecessary. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Fern sees a lovely sight from a staircase. McDormand’s face, shot in profile, first lights up, then morphs by imperceptible degrees into a look of sorrow and resolve. The change is so minutely communicated you can literally track the thoughts that go through Fern’s mind every step of the way. Breathtaking, devastating work.
But it’s not just McDormand. The non-professional actors who play themselves are also tremendous. Just as an example I would single out Swankie, who has a memorable monologue about her favorite place to be in the world. Her lines are written with gorgeous, vibrant details, but it’s her impassioned, wisely unsentimental delivery that will kill you. Have your tissues ready is all I’m saying.
Indeed, NOMADLAND managed to bring cynical old me to tears several times throughout. And curiously, most of these were not overtly tragic moments. What got me instead was often the beauty that the film sees in our ruthless world and its powerless victims, the dignity with which it treats its subject, the sheer goodness of the film. There’s an extended tracking shot that follows Fern through Bob Wells’ RV parking site which is so exquisitely shot (by Joshua James Richards), accompanied by such tender, luminous music (by Ludovico Einaudi) and observes all that misery with so much hope and love, it just broke me.
With just three features under her belt, Chloé Zhao has already established herself as one of the most fascinating filmmakers of her generation. I don’t normally consider myself a fan of the superhero genre, but after this? Color me VERY intrigued about Marvel’s ETERNALS.