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In Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, Frances McDormand delivers a gut-punch of a performance that is as ferocious as it is controlled.20th Century Studios

  • Nomadland
  • Directed by Chloé Zhao
  • Written by Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
  • Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn and Linda May
  • Classification R; 107 minutes

Critic’s Pick

Not homeless, but “houseless,” the sturdy and resourceful widow Fern is introduced in Nomadland as someone in pure survival mode. In her small camper van, nicknamed Vanguard, Fern travels the American West, moving from one seasonal gig to another: Amazon warehouse worker during the Christmas rush, campground janitor in the summer, turnip-picker in the spring, burger-flipper whenever. She is at once a victim of 2012-era American capitalism, but also someone who cannot simply stay still. She wants, she needs, the power of having “nothing in our way.”

In writer-director-editor-producer Chloé Zhao’s beautiful, heartbreaking, majestic, and not a little bit problematic new film Nomadland, Frances McDormand plays Fern with a quiet, intense commitment, delivering a gut-punch of a performance that is as ferocious as it is controlled.

Read more: A too-honest report on Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao, the most fascinating filmmaker of the moment

After losing her husband, her job and her entire community – Zhao uses the real-life abandonment of the gypsum mining town Empire, Nev., as her story’s starting point – Fern is pushed into an itinerant, no-frills lifestyle. She keeps mostly to herself, forging temporary friendships along the way. There is Linda May, who long ago contemplated suicide but stepped back for the sake of her pets. There is Bob Wells, a bushy-bearded off-the-grid guru who organizes Arizona desert rallies for fellow nomads. There is the irascible Swankie, who is trying to gather as many good memories as she can while facing down a cancer diagnosis. And, with the exception of McDormand and the excellent David Strathairn, who pops up as a grizzled romantic interest for Fern, these are all real-deal people playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Swankie is Swankie, no last name given or needed.

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Bob Wells plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself, a bushy-bearded off-the-grid guru who organizes Arizona desert rallies for fellow nomads.20th Century Studios

The great magic trick of McDormand’s act here is just how easily she slides into the world of Bob and Linda and Swankie. The actress has a history of seizing such glamour-free opportunities, of immersing herself into a film as deeply and quietly as she can. But here, she cements her reputation as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest, most generous artists. It is work that grips and lingers.

As much praise should be directed toward Zhao, too. The filmmaker is able to coax, or maybe wring, genuinely affecting performances from people who have never acted a day in their lives. Not everyone can be themselves, or a version of themselves, while cameras are rolling and crew members are fluttering around and you’re staring straight into the face of a real-deal movie star. Yet everyone on-screen projects an air of genuine naturalism.

Zhao, who shot the film in semi-stealth mode while prepping her big Marvel movie debut The Eternals (see if you can catch her one quick joke about her new Avengers bosses here), presents a portrait of America that is depressing, freeing, bursting with sorrow and empathy – but also sometimes at odds with itself.

When I first saw Nomadland this past fall at TIFF and watched Fern toil in the depths of an Amazon “fulfilment centre” – constantly on her feet in a grey, anonymous space, taking breaks for sad, quick lunches – I joked to myself that, well, here is one movie that will never pop up on Amazon Prime Video.

Turns out the joke was on me, and all of us: Zhao got permission to film inside a real-deal Amazon facility after McDormand sent a request to the company’s senior vice-president of business development. (“It was right before they started giving people $15 an hour,” the actress told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “This was a really smart move for them because … we are telling a story about a person who is benefiting from hard work, and working at Amazon is hard work, but it pays a wage.”)

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David Strathairn appears as a grizzled romantic interest for McDormand's Fern.20th Century Studios

After subsequent viewings, I can better appreciate how the film positions Amazon in charitable terms. Fair enough, I suppose – filmmakers should be free to have their own take on the company’s place in North America’s socioeconomic landscape. And many other directors have gone much further than that, partnering with the corporation’s streaming arm when it suits.

But on this point, Zhao’s Nomadland cannot help but messily collide with its own source material. In Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the author details anecdotes of life within the Amazon workforce, including on-site injuries, which should disturb even the most passionate Prime subscriber.

There are other ways, too, in which Nomadland, the film, runs into conflict with nomadland, the reality – and rather than acknowledging such contradictions, Zhao’s work tends to sweep them aside in tidy indie-in-name-only fashion.

Fern, for instance, is an original creation by Zhao and McDormand – not an actual itinerant pulled from Bruder’s research. So while she is an economically pressured free spirit like Linda May and Swankie, she is also not really – and is thus afforded the narrative conveniences that make such a story that much more palatable to general audiences.

When Fern runs into van-repair trouble, for instance, she is able to escape to the comfort of her well-off sister. Although Fern gets back on the road as fast as she can, there are many other nomads – that is, victims of the system that Zhao is ostensibly indicting – who have absolutely no one to turn to in times of trouble. But if Zhao truly adhered to the rawness of reality, she’d have to make a movie in which Fern might just die on the side of the road. Not very marketable.

This is both the film’s crutch and its saving grace: We can escape to Fern’s world without fear of being stuck in it for more than two hours. Nomadland is as beautiful and engrossing and well-acted a film as this year has so far delivered. But I also wonder what Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells and other nomads might make of it, watching it in the back of their vans in between shifts. I think that Zhao does, too. But Nomadland makes it hard to know for sure.

Nomadland is available to stream on Disney+ add-on Star starting April 9, the same day it opens in select Canadian theatres, dependent on local health restrictions

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, recommended works will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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