There are certain actors with whom you prepare yourself for their revelations.
They're the brave ones. They're unafraid of cinematic vulnerability. In fact, it seems like they insist on it. They're the risk-takers of Hollywood. They don't always succeed precisely because they're always willing to take those kinds of risks.
Frances McDormand is one of those actors and Nomadland, masterfully written and directed by Chloe Zhao, is her blank slate of a film in which she so completely immerses herself into Fern that Fern herself feels more like one of us rather than simply a character we're watching.
Over the course of filming Nomadland, Zhao and McDormand lived amongst the nomads building relationships and trust and an authentic lens upon which to build what is most assuredly one of 2020's finest motion pictures. If we didn't already know McDormand, Fern would feel very much like one of these nomads and, indeed, she still manages to feel authentic and very much like she belongs in these worlds where she places herself.
Nomadland is based loosely on Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction novel of the same name. Zhao has taken that non-fiction and brought to life stories that feel part fiction, part memoir and all fully alive. This may be partly because Zhao also layers the film's tapestry with real nomadic souls such as Swankie, Linda May, and Bob Wells, all of whom are real-life members of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a movement that advises and supports those living an RV and van-dwelling lifestyle.
I guess you could so that so many of these experiences feel real because they are real.
These are the worlds that have seemingly always captured the interest of Zhao, who seems to fancy people living on the outer fringes of societal normalcy and expectations. She paints stunning portraits of real people living real lives that many of us can't imagine really exist.
There's not a whole lot that happens in Nomadland, at least not narratively. Fern is a rather extraordinary human being, though I'm not sure I'd care to spend much time with her. I have a feeling that would be mutual. This isn't an insult. In fact, I'd dare say you'll find yourself falling in love with Fern within the film's opening seconds, yes seconds, because there's such a complete and utter truth to her that you can't help but love her.
David Strathairn's Dave, really the only other known actor to be found here, tries to love her or at least hints at the idea but this isn't a love story and the kind of life that Fern is living isn't one to be simply lassoed and bound by traditional roles and relationships. There's loads of love to be found here, but there's a universality to it may be hard for some to understand.
The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is extraordinary, wide landscapes practically swallowing up the human beings who choose to call these places home. It's as if Richards understands Fern's discomfort practically everywhere, home an elusive concept inside Fern's mind that seems caught somewhere between the inhales and the exhales of life. Zhao's editing is so precise you may find yourself not even noticing it until you reflect back on how many wondrous little moments there are here, moments of quiet connection and gentle escape, subtle grief and embrace of the mundane.
McDormand's performance here is so difficult to describe, a vocal tranquility companioned by a physical being constantly in the need of moving. She says very little, but speaks meaningfully. She's a deeper listener and she walks with the angels. While there's an element of escape to Fern, it's not an escape from responsibility or presence. Fern works and works hard, sometimes at an Amazon gig job and other times cleaning roadside toilets or in still other part-time, seasonal jobs. But, she works and she rejects the idea of not working.
Fern is most certainly not trying to escape life itself.
She cares about people. She cares about Dave. She cares about her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith). She simply lives differently than them and she can't, she simply can't confine herself within their worlds.
If you're paying attention, you'll notice that Ludovico Einaudi's original score changes over the course of Nomadland, partly following Fern's journey but also partly immersing itself in her different worlds. It's a beautiful score and the perfect companion to the equally beautiful film.
Nomadland is easily one of 2020's best films, a film I long to see in the post-pandemic world on a bigger screen where the film's universality can be lived into even though the story itself feels intimate and small.
Frances McDormand has long been one of Hollywood's most extraordinary actors, a performer who surrenders to the full potential of her characters and an actor who is unafraid of vulnerability and intimacy. She's the kind of performer where you find yourself saying "best performance yet" because she inherently pushes herself to explore new acting landscapes and undiscovered journeys. She makes them work and we reap the benefits.
A quiet embrace of an unorthodox soul whom we may never understand but we will always love, Nomadland is in many ways an introspective tale not just of Fern but of the United States of America where she lives.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic