Chloé Zhao is a great cartographer of the new American frontier. Her films are Westerns, of a style, and yet, dramatically new. They are about modern miseries. When her characters grace the screen, it is as though they have never felt so deeply before then. That they’ve bottled and staged a lifetime of emotion so that it could pour through like a river of empathy. Nomadland, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s recent novel, is a film powered by women, at all levels, that is likely to make a magnificent awards push, with the narrative largely focused around a potential career best Frances McDormand. The honest story about Nomadland is that it is the tale of two women and their extraordinary power with telling tangibly true stories for the cinema.
Nomadland is concerned with spaces and places. Make no mistake, it is a quintessentially American film. It exists within vast stretches of land, fulfills a classical idea of what the country is, and means to those who live here. Within that framework, it operates as a different kind of story about the pioneer spirit of the American. Frances McDormand’s Fern (the character only belongs to her, now) has lost it all, or given it all up. Widowed and destitute, she is left clawing away at the smallness of the remaining American Dream. For her, it’s her RV. She goes everywhere in it. But this is not a road movie. It is about the spaces and places in-between, the landing spots for Fern and her moveable home.
She drives the same roads that the pioneers once wagoned over. It begins with working a simple Amazon fulfillment job. The work sucks, but the money is good, she lies to herself. The film works through its commentaries about these jobs, where people can get truly stuck. Where you can live your life to work, and it’s all menial work, and then die for the very same job you lived for. Like Zhao’s prior picture, The Rider (2018), it’s once again a kind of misery porn. Very affecting misery porn, but self-concerned and living within its own, and the country’s entire sadness, all the same.
It is the finest kind of rebuke to any idea of Making America Great Again. With the dissolving middle class, it shows the most common experience of Americans. This film is also a frame of reality. Frances McDormand, so expert the actor, never feels like she is playing any kind of character. It feels truer than documentary. It’s a captivating and award-friendly turn, one that we can put into the books, as a performance we can study and learn from, the best example of the year of profound character study.
Nomadland is also about the friends we meet along the way. Fern’s friends can feel as transitory as her worklife. Relationships begin and end out of mere convenience. There is rarely a plot contrivance to keep anyone within the story. The characters of the story shift in and out with the fading landscape, as her caravan rolls onward to new land. McDormand is a kind of gravitational center. Everyone who is on screen is better for performing against her talents. She is the beloved fan favorite of a sports team, the one who makes everyone around her better through sheer mastery of her own craft.
With all its emotive peaks and depressing valleys, the instincts of Zhao’s last film are firmly in-tact. The audience is likely to come away with the very same feeling. Both that she is an exemplary craftswoman and that this is some truly grave, depressing cinema. There is not any signaled relief. We sit with the characters through their hardships and then are left without anything to process their experience by the end. It feels like we must book a therapy appointment to expunge our feelings about someone else’s life, as they have seeped into our own feelings so dramatically. Nomadland revives the tradition of great American storytelling. It’s a noble and concentrated effort that rides high off of its empathetic capacity, painful art for the sake of it.