Nomadland by Chloé Zhao [8/10]

Inheritors of the American hobo tradition, countless casualties of the gaping inequalities in the United States now apparently roam the country’s desolated areas, living out of caravans, vans, and tents. Nomads, they’re called, and “Nomadland” is writer/director Chloé Zhao’s immersive, almost dystopian depiction of their weird worlds. Discarded by capitalism, the movie’s centerpiece, middle-aged, working-class Fern, jury rigs a van to her idiosyncratic liking, leaves her now-junked mining town, and ventures into snow, desert, and mountainscapes. The fieldwork of The Grapes of Wrath is now, in Fern’s case, our era’s subsistence piecework: packing goods in one of Amazon’s supersized warehouses; cleaning shitty toilets in an RV park; slaving away in roadside cafes; hefting sacks of beets. Forensic rather than polemic, gentle not abrasive, brutally stark without sentimentality, Nomadland could well have drifted into travelogue territory, and the sweeping beauty of Joshua James Richards’s cinematography centers the movie on vast badland scenes. And Fern’s narrative journey is hardly substantive. What elevates Nomadland into art are Zhao’s discerning vision, the elegiac piano soundtrack of Ludovico Einaudi, and, above all, Frances McDormand’s utterly natural, unforgettable, star turn as Fern. Other actors shine as well ( I always enjoy David Strathairn, here playing an awkward middle-aged man in love with Fern) and the inclusion of non-actors from the nomad community is notable, but McDormand turns what might have been a semi-documentary into a reflection on home and community and modern life. A wondrous movie.

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