Her name is Chloé Zhao, and she makes Westerns. It may seem odd that this 38-year-old native of Beijing found herself at home in the Great American West, but then, we so often see people find their place far from where they grew up. Two years ago, Zhao caught the eye of people on our shores with her first American film, The Rider, which starred a real-life rodeo rider in South Dakota. Her follow-up movie, Nomadland, is more impressive yet. It comes to our multiplexes this week, though I think a better place to see it would be at a drive-in where the open spaces around your car echo the open spaces in the film.
The film is set in 2012, in the wake of the previous recession. Frances McDormand plays Fern, who has recently lost not only her husband but also her Nevada hometown, after the mining company that employed everyone there shut down operations. Now she has taken to living out of a van, traveling all over the West, and doing seasonal jobs because she’s not yet old enough to live on retirement.
McDormand blends in seamlessly with a cast filled mostly with real-life nomads who roam the freeways thus from California to Nebraska. One indelible moment comes when a 75-year-old nomad named Swankie tells Fern about her terminal brain cancer and how her sight of swallows over a river during a long-ago kayaking trip to Colorado let her know that she had lived a good life. There’s such an easy rapport between her and McDormand that a whole movie could have been made from just them hashing out the particulars of life without a house.
Zhao is all about the particulars, as Fern is relatively new to this way of life and occasionally needs advice, with Swankie admonishing her about traveling without a spare tire. The director and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards have an eye for the beauties of the terrain, whether they’re in the badlands of South Dakota or the desert of Arizona. However, they don’t overlook the grimy details of the various workplaces where Fern toils: a national park, a sugar beet farm, a diner, an Amazon plant. The nomads know one another, and life is a constant series of farewells and reunions as they journey down their own paths.
Some of those nomads are PTSD cases who can’t live in big cities, while others use the road as a refuge from addictions and the like. Perhaps Zhao could have been sharper about the forces that turn people like Fern into nomads. She gives us a bit of that when Fern is forced to stay with her sister (Melissa Smith) and starts in on her brother-in-law (Warren Keith) who’s buying up real estate in a predatory way. Nomadland could have used more to keep the film from being a misty-eyed tribute to the romance of the open road, but then, I don’t know that asking filmmakers to be socioeconomic professors is the best thing. What I do know is that Zhao, like Kelly Reichardt (whose Wendy and Lucy is spiritual kin to this film), has a knack for gazing on the deeds of marginalized people with the greatest delicacy and empathy, without turning preachy or polemical. Fern has a chance to settle down in a house with a man (David Strathairn, one of the few professional actors here) who cares about her, but she chooses to go back out on the freeway and tell a departed nomad, “See you down the road.” It’s hard not to climb on board with that.
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Starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Rated R.