Frances McDormand Wanders the West in Chloé Zhao's Gorgeous Movie 'Nomadland'

Chloé Zhao's new film out of TIFF is a masterpiece that highlights the beauty of the American West, even when it's been infected by corporations.

Searchlight Pictures

Home, as a concept, resonates even more than usual these days. We've now been home for nearly seven months, and for most Americans, that means staying put. But in Chloé Zhao's Nomadland -- which premiered at this year's Toronto, Venice, and Telluride film festivals simultaneously -- the notion of "home" is transmutable and worth interrogating. The film is both a travelogue of the West, displaying some of the most stunning vistas ever put to screen, and a document of the innate hardness of American life under corporate structures. It is, above all, an immensely peaceful film, brimming with the kind of empathy that feels necessary and rare right now. 

Zhao's previous two films, Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, were docudramas set on Native American reservations, narrative films starring non-actors. Here, she adapts a piece of journalistic nonfiction by Jessica Bruder, using some of Bruder's actual subjects, but anchoring the piece with a performance by Frances McDormand as her protagonist. 

McDormand plays Fern, who lived with her now-deceased husband in a small mining town known as Empire before the corporation keeping it afloat shut down and the zip code was rendered nonexistent. Fern is living out of her van and taking shifts at Amazon, when her friend Linda May tells her about the teachings of Bob Wells, a van life guru. Fern follows Linda to Bob's "Rubber Tramp Rendezvous," a sort of spiritual gathering of nomads, before they all head on their separate ways, occasionally crossing paths over the course of the film.

What at first appears to be an aimless narrative, dotted with mesmerizing tracking shots in which McDormand strides across landscapes as parades of mobile homes move out in the distance, subtly reveals itself to be a purposeful journey. Patiently, Zhao and McDormand reveal how Fern's insistence on traveling is a means of coping with grief over the loss of her spouse.

Searchlight Pictures

It seems like McDormand is the only actor who could have possibly played Fern. No other Hollywood star has the same earthy quality and lack of vanity as she does. Though at times it is hard to forget that, yes, that is Oscar winner Frances McDormand, she fits as seamlessly as she possibly could in this landscape opposite first-time performers like May, Wells, and Charlene Swankie, who have the lived experiences she does not. McDormand's work is a feat of observation and listening, as well as an embodiment of a woman with a stubborn commitment to the existence she has chosen.

Nomadland neither glamorizes Fern's path, nor does it romanticize the difficulties, avoiding leaning into poverty porn that entrances so many filmmakers. Fern shits in a bucket and works long hours doing physical labor, but she's also witness to natural wonders and human kindness. It's initially shocking how many corporate logos Zhao highlights: the cold gleam of the Amazon facility; a Progressive-branded RV show. But this isn't inconsiderate product placement. Rather, it's a reminder how inescapable capitalism is, even for those who have chosen to opt out of it. 

Zhao frequently reminds the viewer how solitary and stolid Fern is in these landscapes, which overwhelm with their grandeur. The camera swings around her as she observes her own smallness against Redwoods or rock formations. But the film rebukes the idea that being a nomad means being lonely or without community. The camaraderie on display is occasionally overwhelming, and even Fern, in her isolation, is powerless to resist the friendship of the likes of David Strathairn's Dave even if her instincts tell her to keep pressing onward. 

At a moment when American patriotism has become synonymous with hate, exclusion, and greed, Nomadland offers a portrait of life on the fringes that encapsulates the inverse of those sentiments. It's a deeply generous, nonjudgemental work of art, fully attuned to this country's cruelty as well as its beauty. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.