'Nomadland' review: Frances McDormand at her finest

7 min read
fairly difficult
The award-winning road movie from the writer-director Chloé Zhao is a gorgeous, lyrical weave of documentary and fiction.
Near the beginning of "Nomadland," Chloé Zhao's wise, wistful hymn to the open road, Fern (Frances McDormand) drives her van through a chilly stretch of Nevada desert, singing to herself as the wind lashes her windows. Her destination is an Amazon warehouse where she will spend weeks bubble-wrapping and sealing packages for delivery, a grueling godsend of a job that will help her and many other itinerant workers get through the rough winter months ahead. The song she's singing is "What Child Is This?," a seasonally appropriate choice that sent my thoughts drifting back centuries to another group of wanderers, seeking shelter from a world that seems oblivious to their sufferings and ignorant of their worth.

"Nomadland," which will begin a weeklong virtual run Friday before opening more widely in February, does bear a passing (and sometimes amusing) resemblance to a modern-day nativity play. Fern, played by McDormand at the plainspoken peak of her powers, is a widow in her 60s with no children to speak of, though at one point she does awkwardly cradle a sleeping infant. There is no transcendence at the end of her long, harrowing journey, but there are unexpected gifts, guardian angels and places of refuge. It would be hard to overlook the spiritual presence — a good word for it would be "grace" — that hovers over every frame of this movie and the spare, wrenching story it has to tell.

Sometimes that grace manifests itself in the unobtrusive beauty of Joshua James Richards' widescreen images, in the gentle curve of a highway or the sunlight gleaming over a crowded RV park. (It also manifests itself in the plaintive musical score, excerpted from the work of the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi.) We sense Fern's gratitude as she tucks into a hot cup of chili with other hungry travelers, or her satisfaction when she glues together the broken pieces of a plate, a cherished gift from her father. "OK," she says, appraising her good-enough handiwork. Like her fellow…
Justin Chang
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