Nomadland becomes even more of an achievement when you find out the supporting cast is entirely amateur. The film’s a character study of lead Frances McDormand as she adjusts to her life as a modern nomad, traveling the country in her van (where she also lives), working seasonal jobs, and coming across a variety of people. All those people—with the exception of David Strathairn—are amateurs. Their effectiveness (or the outright quality of their performances) is stunning; because while McDormand is potentially an eccentric—the film takes a while giving that information—none of the folks she meets on the road come off as quirky Americana tropes. Director, screenwriter, and editor Zhao hones in on their humanity immediately.
The film takes place in 2011, after tragedy and the recession has ravaged McDormand’s life; after losing her home (she lived in a company town), she moves into her van while working a seasonal job at Amazon. She’s got a good friend at that job, Linda May (starring Linda May as Linda May, as it were). Zhao introduces the nomad lifestyle initially through May, before they both end up at a nomad retreat led by Bob Wells. That retreat might be the longest McDormand stays in one place, long enough to meet Strathairn, who’s immediately smitten with her, deepen her friendship with May, and meet a new good friend in Charlene Swankie.
Those four—May, Swankie, Strathairn, and Wells—will be the supporting cast, even though Nomadland never settles long enough for it to seem like a firm commitment. Zhao employs a lyrical structure to the film overall, with McDormand leading the film into excursions into the wilderness around her, but there’s some epical drama involving Strathairn, where the film—quite frankly—comes the closest to derailing. Zhao pulls it all together again and pushes up and over, saving the best for last as far as character revelation goes on McDormand. During her travels, we find out more and more of her backstory, with sister Melissa Smith doing one of the great character study monologues to explain their relationship, but Zhao and McDormand resist any actual reveals on the character until the very end. Then they knock it out of the park with a perfect finish.
I had been expecting Nomadland to be a depressing piece about the ravages of the Great Recession, but Zhao finds an entirely different story. Not one of resilience or survival but of contentment and wonderment. The way Zhao and McDormand do the nature scenes, when McDormand takes a walk off the beaten path, is divine. Zhao isn’t showing the world through McDormand’s eyes, rather McDormand’s eyes on the world and then McDormand carries through with showing her experience of those sights. It’s breathtaking.
And gets added heft thanks to some of the choice exposition throughout the film, all building—not epically but in energy—towards the conclusion. McDormand’s got an arc, the film hasn’t. If there’s a third act, it’s where Zhao figures out how to delineate between the two. Not because she’s been avoiding it, but because there’s an end to the film even though the entire picture’s about how there isn’t an end. It’s got to be done.
The film identifies some of the locales McDormand ends up, like Wall Drug (dollar ice creams are not a plot point, however), but not expressly. The Where isn’t important, rather the What, and how Zhao showcases that What. Nomadland showcases its scenery separately from how McDormand observes it, with Joshua James Richards’s gorgeous, lush photography—the stuff he and Zhao do with foreground and background is glorious—Ludovico Einaudi’s music, and then Zhao’s exceptional cutting. It’s in the first twenty minutes or so it becomes clear how good the editing is going to be throughout Nomadland; the photography’s the photography, it’s an obvious success, but the editing is simultaneously sublime and bombastic. Zhao does superior work, so even when it seems like they’re going to take an easy route to a traditional narrative in the second half, the editing’s still superb.
But then, of course, Zhao and McDormand figure out how to make that seeming short cut to didacticism into just another place where McDormand wanders off the path to look around on her own.
McDormand’s performance is singular. Nomadland is all her (or her van). The character reveals late in the film line up with the performance we’ve already seen; they don’t inform because it’d be too intentional and Nomadland takes wandering approach; McDormand doesn’t respond well to being constrained. It all comes together in that exceptional finish.
In the supporting cast, while Strathairn’s excellent, Swankie’s the best. She’s prickly as opposed to May, who’s all heart. Swankie’s prickle provides an excellent contrast to McDormand, who’s muted. Swankie challenges McDormand, while May reinforces her. And Strathairn (tries to) tempt her.
Nomadland’s a singular picture, exploring a very specific character in a very specific—albeit wandering—setting. Zhao and McDormand (and the cast and crew) make a very special and decidedly outstanding film.