Filmmakers and artists in general tend to judge their characters. Here is the good guy, here is the bad guy. Here is the problem that needs to be addressed in order for the leading man or woman to be happy at the end of the movie or damned because of their bad behavior. There is a much lesser version of the true story of “Nomadland,” based on Jessica Bruder’s book, that does all of this, melodramatizing Fern’s story into a story of redemption. Fern doesn’t think she needs to be redeemed or saved, and Zhao doesn’t press any buttons to try and make us feel sorry for her either, while never underestimating the loneliness and sadness of his situation. The result is a film that wins its emotions, which come more than any other genuine and honest empathy.
Of course, this is impossible with an actress less than Frances McDormand anchoring every scene. We see this world through McDormand’s performance, one of the most subtle and refined of his career. Fern is an incredibly complex woman, someone who can be agitated to a degree who feels self-sabotaging but is also incredibly warm and open with her people. She makes friends everywhere she goes, like the ladies she goes to a VR show with or the young man she gives a light to. McDormand does so much with a wry glance or smile that other actors couldn’t convey with a full monologue. We see a lifetime in this performance. Every beat and every choice has a story behind it. This is one of the best career performances of one of our best actresses. It is just breathtaking.
And Zhao matches what she gets from McDormand in “Nomadland” with her amazing technical prowess. She reunites with Joshua James Richards, the director of photography on “The Rider,” and the couple once again find beauty in the country’s landscapes. Fern’s journey takes her across the United States and Zhao and Richards lean into the majesty of the world around him with long shots of the horizon, most of them seemingly shot at magic hour. It’s a beautiful film just to live, and it’s not just “beauty shots”. Everything about the visual language of “Nomadland” is striking – the way Richards and Zhao slowly slide their cameras with Fern through a community of van dwellers can seem lyrical without ever losing the truth and courage of the moment. Honestly, it’s hard to understand how Zhao made such a beautiful film in his compositions and always feels like he has dirt under his fingernails. A moving score by Ludovico Einaudi which is easily my favorite of the year adds to the poetry of it all.