Who but Frances McDormand could take on such mundane tasks as making peanut butter sandwiches, cleaning toilets and packing merchandise into Amazon boxes and transform such moments into a riveting cinematic experience? The two-time Oscar-winning best-actress for 1996’s Fargo and 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is at the top of her game in filmmaker Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland.
As much as I worship Meryl Streep – who could prove to be a rival to McDormand this awards season for her work in Netflix’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom – lately she is prone to relying on costuming, makeup and wigs to pump up her performances. With McDormand, however, what you see is what you get – unadorned with bedhead hair, no makeup, Walmart chic wardrobe and all. Her character Fern is a 60-ish widow and substitute English teacher who decides in 2011 to leave the dying town of Empire, Nev. She joins a movement of retirees who began to roam the country after the Great Recession hit in 2008 and live in their RVs while looking for temporary employment.
As Zhao has done in her previous films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, she creates a sort of doc-oriented fiction by using non-actors whose own stories are being told. In this case, her main cast is actual nomads who engage in a camper culture movement led by their snowy-bearded guru Bob Wells who plays himself and quite well. What makes it all work is the ever-flinty yet congenial McDormand, who blends in perfectly with her real-life co-stars. One of her closest mates is Charlene Swankie, a standout who shares a touchingly intimate monologue with Fern about mortality and the state of her health.
Given that Fern is an independent sort, it feels a little cheesy that the lone other name-brand performer, David Strathairn, develops a crush on Fern, who she tries to keep at arm’s length for the most part before he almost convinces her to settle down once more. But given she still wears her wedding ring and that she barely sees her younger sister, this is a woman who just doesn’t want to be burdened anymore.
Others have noted that the gorgeous cinematography of desert-scapes, giant trees and rock formations are almost Malick-esque while the yearning musical score suggests possibilities afoot. Meanwhile, Zhao allows her star to be as human as possible, whether having to pee at the side of the road, bathe stark-naked in a stream, suffering a flat tire or suddenly feeling the need to poop into a bucket.
While the lifestyle is far from romantic and the work that Fern finds is never going to make her rich, I sort of envied the fact that while we are all hunkered down in our homes, these vagabonds are able to be unchained and allowed to choose their destinies. I also appreciated being among a community whose members have each other’s back. Rather than say goodbye, Wells delivers to Fern his usual salutation to his followers, “See you down the road.”
Nomadland is playing Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. It is due for release on Friday, December 4.