'Nomadland' is a stunning achievement

Courtesy PhotoFrances McDormand stars in 'Nomadland.'

There’s a lot of space made for the quiet in Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and there’s a courage to that quiet. Adapted by Zhao from a nonfiction book of the same name, “Nomadland” could have easily been the kind of film another director might have packed with swelling music, bombastic performances, and grandiose visions of the promise of the American West. In the hands of Zhao and the film’s star, Frances McDormand, it becomes something else entirely, a film about wandering that has the courage to remind us that solitary journeys are about far more than external stimuli. It’s a journey we also take in our own hearts and minds, and it’s the focus on that internal journey that makes “Nomadland” an astonishing, breathtaking movie experience.

McDormand is Fern, a woman whose life was simultaneously shattered by the death of her husband and the death of the company town she called home. In response to this dual loss, Fern decides to outfit a van for nomadic living and take to the road, finding work where she can and taking comfort in the personalities she encounters along the way. The more she journeys, the more she finds conflicting views of exactly what it is she’s searching for, as other nomads both thrive in self-sufficiency and long for something beyond the existence they’ve fallen into. As her journey extends, and the ties she’s gathered along the way begin to pull her in various directions, Fern seeks an internal compass that points her in the right direction.

It’s this sense of searching – not just wandering, but searching – that anchors “Nomadland” even as Zhao’s film takes Fern from deserts to snowy plains, mountains to beaches and everywhere in between. Fern is not on her journey because of some oversimplified notion of “self-discovery,” but neither does she feel entirely without purpose or resolve. There’s a sense of in-betweenness to the narrative, a sense of slipping through the cracks even if she hasn’t quite fallen yet, that persists in Fern’s journey. It’s a difficult tightrope for the film to walk, but I can’t imagine that journey being in better hands than Zhao and McDormand.

Zhao’s camera is, like Fern’s mind, curious and agile but never hurried, lingering on the beauty of the American West without ever getting lost in it. There’s a version of this film that’s all sweeping vistas and beautifully filtered sunsets, but that’s not the version Zhao chose to make. The beauty is there, but it’s the kind of beauty you might see from your car window. It’s honest beauty, docudrama beauty, not Hollywood beauty, and the result is a film that comes across as tactile, textural, and laced through with an aching sense of bittersweet understanding. We’ve all seen versions of these things in our travels, and we’ve watched them pass us by. “Nomadland” understands that particular sensation with a degree of sensitivity that feels almost supernatural.

Then there’s McDormand, long one of our finest actors, who seeks and finds new levels of vulnerability and precision in her work as Fern. The same sense of quiet, of solitary searching that pervades Zhao’s filmmaking style lingers in her eyes in just about every scene, even the ones when Fern is really opening up to another player in her story. So much of the film is McDormand carrying the narrative on her shoulders, finding the right emotional tone for solitary scenes, but there’s an equally important swing she also has to carry in the moments where Fern finds someone worth lingering with. In those moments, the moments of real human connection amid all the wandering, she must find a different gear for the performance, and seamlessly transition into it without grinding anything to a halt. She does it like a master, delivering another stellar performance in a career packed with them.

“Nomadland” is a film about wandering, about searching, but more importantly it’s a film about persisting. Through their respective lenses, Zhao and McDormand craft a portrait of America that is not entirely bleak but not entirely hopeful either, an America where sometimes making it to the next spot in the map is not just all you can do, but all you have to do to get to the next sunrise. It’s a powerful, sobering, often achingly beautiful journey, and an essential film for the world we’re in now.

‘Nomadland’ is now playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu. 

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