Review: 'Nomadland' explores a different kind of American dream

Two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand stars in one of the year's most stunning films

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Frances McDormand doesn't work often, so when she does, she makes it count. 

It certainly counts in "Nomadland," writer-director Chloé Zhao's soulful, compassionate study of American road dwellers who live on their wheels and travel from town to town, never staying anywhere long enough to rust or collect dust. Framed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards' gorgeous widescreen landscapes — Richards also shot Zhao's previous film, 2017's "The Rider" — "Nomadland" is a stirring work, informed by the loneliness and the wisdom of the road, and enriched by Zhao's humanizing touch. 

Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."

McDormand, in her first on-screen role since she picked up her second Oscar for 2017's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (her first Academy Award came for "Fargo," in 1996), stars as Fern, a modern day nomad who lives in her van and bounces around the country, picking up seasonal work where she can. Fern was living with her husband in Empire, Nevada, when the local factory shut down in 2011 after sheet rock fell out of favor with consumers. The closing was so devastating to the city that its ZIP code was discontinued and in an instant it was rendered a ghost town, its inhabitants sent packing for greener pastures. 

Or any pastures, really; it was a "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" situation writ large, a promise failed. Then Fern's husband got sick and passed away and she hit the road on her own, which is where we pick up with her, as she's working at an Amazon distribution facility and living in an RV park a half hour outside of Reno.

Her van, which she calls Vanguard, is her home, her sanctuary, and houses all of her worldly possessions: a few pieces of clothing, a bed, some dishes her father passed down to her. When Fern runs into a student she used to tutor who expresses concern that she is homeless, Fern explains she's not homeless, she's houseless. There's a difference, she says, and she's living a stripped down, hand-to-mouth version of the American dream, one rarely seen or delved into on film.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in "Nomadland."

Fern travels to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota where she gets a job performing maintenance work with a friend, Linda May, one of several real-life nomads who play versions of themselves in the film. Fern bumps into a familiar face in Dave (David Strathairn), who's also on the road, taking on part-time and pick-up work where he can. When his son visits him and Dave goes to stay with his family, he asks Fern to join him, and she has to decide whether she should stop or to continue on her journey, destination unknown. 

"Nomadland" is almost experimental in its structure; McDormand is nothing less than living as Fern, mingling with real people in real settings on the road, and there's no questioning the authenticity of her character or her work. Her performance is so natural it almost looks effortless. 

Similarly, Zhao — adapting from a book by Jessica Bruder — sets up the film so it's free of phony or melodramatic elements that would rob it of its essence and take away from the sincerity of her filmmaking. A few minor tweaks and it could be a documentary, a testament to the earned realism of her work. 

"Nomadland" is an existential exploration of the notion of freedom, of life lived on the blurry edges of American society, untethered to traditional ideals of society. The safeties of home, of savings accounts, of a net: if they were suddenly ripped away from you, what would you do? Where would you be? Who would you be?  

Early on in the film, a character quotes a line from Morrissey that embodies one of the movie's themes: "Home, is it just a word? Or is it something you carry within you?" In "Nomadland," home is a floating concept, it's a state of mind, but home is always where the heart is.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Nomadland'

GRADE: A-

Rated R: for some full nudity

Running time: 107 minutes

In theaters Friday, on Hulu Feb. 19