Oscar-nominated actress Frances McDormand plays a disenfranchised widow in “Nomadland,” where she takes to the road in a van after she loses her job in a mine, which shuts down in 2011.
The Nevada town that depended on it crumbles, its zip code is binned.
“Nomadland” has clinched several Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director for Chloe Zhao. The first Chinese woman auteur with this recognition, Zhao had in her earlier two films — “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider” — created a romance with the American West, training her script and camera toward the magical landscape with its huge, thinly populated open places.
Zhao usually works with amateur actors, but in “Nomadland,” she makes a departure, and her choice of McDormand could not have been more brilliant. My first recollection of this wonderful actress is in “Fargo,” in which she is a police detective, whose heavily pregnant condition does not deter her from pursuing a man guilty of botching up the kidnapping of his own wife.
Another work of McDormand — “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” — also revealed her riveting style. The rape and horrific murder of her teenage daughter leaves her shattered, but she is not one to be cowed down and with the local cops twiddling their thumbs, she takes it upon herself to find the culprit.
It is the same kind of steely nerve she displays in “Nomadland,” where she is widowed in her early 60s. When her house provided by the mining company is taken away and the increasingly ghostly town begins to shed residents, Fern (McDormand) moves into her van. The sorrow of the loss of a lifelong partner and her vanishing home and town are poignantly portrayed by her, capturing the raw emotion of the painful transition.
She drives around the country taking up menial jobs, despite having the qualifications to work in teaching or administration positions. But with the disastrous economic scenario, nobody wants to hire someone her age. When close friends offer her a home, she refuses: “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.”
The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving in the Twenty-First Century.” The film closely follows the text, examining the hardship faced by some elderly Americans who are forced to live in vans and pick up odd jobs. The pathetic manner in which they are treated is heart-wrenching. Zhao captures the cruelty of this aspect of the US with admirable imagination, alternating between forceful and subtle depictions. Fern’s dignity and self-respect are remarkably handled, and the director uses many real-life drifters who play themselves.
Working with her regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, Zhao scripts a story that mingles the elements of a feature with a documentary film. Picture postcards sceneries that include skies ready to welcome a sunset add to the visual richness of “Nomadland.” A work par excellence.