When an extraordinary movie comes along, there can be a reluctance to raise expectations too high, but there's no other way to say this: "Nomadland" is perfect.
The wild talents of Frances McDormand are familiar to us, and I'm not sure they've ever been showcased better. But "Nomadland" likely introduces most movie fans to the gifted Chloé Zhao ("The Rider"), who wrote, directed, edited and coproduced it, as well as found the gorgeous music and probably other jobs we'll never know about. Zhao has taken a seemingly impossible-to-adapt book, Jessica Bruder's nonfiction study of houseless people, and captured a part of its clear-eyed essence while creating something that feels tough, hopeful and entirely new.
Much of that has to do with Fern, whom Zhao and McDormand invented (most other "characters" in "Nomadland" are people from the book, playing themselves). When we meet her, Fern (McDormand) is saying goodbye to everything she knows, storing most of her stuff in a locker and packing the rest into Vanguard, an Econoline van she plans to live in while traveling, picking up temp jobs and seeking wide-open spaces. ("It creates more counter space," she proudly tells pal Linda May as she folds down the lid of a box that becomes her "kitchen" "counter.")
Watching McDormand in "Nomadland," which has many close-ups of her face as she meanders around South Dakota's Badlands and elsewhere while Zhao fills half the screen with cloudy skies, it occurred to me that I could love a whole movie that's nothing but the two-time Oscar winner listening to people. McDormand is a rare performer whose warmth is as ferocious as the anger she showed in, say, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Look at her performance in "Fargo." You'll notice how she uses her eyes, which are generally wide-open and animated (it's why she pops so much in a YouTube supercut of every best actress Oscar winner). But in "Nomadland," McDormand's acting is shyer, more wary. Intent when listening, she often looks away when she speaks — as if, far from the places she used to know, Fern is unsure of how to engage.
Fern listens a lot to the people she meets in "Nomadland": to Linda May, who discusses her thoughts of suicide; to Bob Wells, who breaks down while discussing his son's death; to her sister, who tells her, "You maybe seemed weird but it was just because you were braver and more honest than anybody else." Fern's (and the movie's) listening brings dignity and beauty to the lives of people we wouldn't usually encounter or attend to. They make "Nomadland" bigger than its tiny story — you'd be hard-pressed to say what it's about, other than Fern's quest for freedom — so that it feels like a totemic western along the lines of "High Noon," with McDormand as its Gary Cooper.
I've seen "Nomadland" a few times now and I'm struck every time by the details Zhao and McDormand linger on — the hesitant way Fern pets a dog, her immediate responses to yes-or-no questions, the pleasure with which she settles into a lawn chair, her care in reciting Shakespeare's 18th sonnet. There is great power in this movie's subtle choices, and what they add up to is an astonishing achievement in American film.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R, some full nudity.
Where: In area theaters and on Hulu.