In "Nomadland," filmmaker Chloé Zhao's vision of life on the road in the postmodern American West, "van life" isn't quite what you'd see under that Instagram hashtag. Instead of young folks posing among carefully designed decor, Zhao turns to the practical details, like the lack of indoor plumbing. No nuance of life on the road goes unexamined by Zhao's attentive gaze, regarding each detail the same way she regards her heroine Fern (Frances McDormand), observing without judgment. Fern's a great listener, and Zhao, as a filmmaker, listens to her in return, even when she's not speaking, yet saying everything, about grief, loss, work and the value of her own human, American life.
"Nomadland," which has earned a slew of film festival and critics' groups awards, is based on the book by Jessica Bruder, but feels of a piece with Zhao's previous film, "The Rider," a poetic portrait of a young, injured rodeo rider, which blurred the lines of documentary and fiction. In "Nomadland," Zhao immerses her characters in the real world, buttressing their stories with nonfiction.
The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end in this journey called "Nomadland," as Fern circles round and round the American West on two-lane blacktop. She's a refugee from a town called Empire, in Nevada. Introductory text onscreen informs us that this company town ceased to exist when the plant closed, discontinuing even the ZIP code. A widow, Fern takes to her van, working seasonal gigs and adapting to this lifestyle with the help of her new friends. She's not "homeless," but "houseless," finding her home on the road, and in the vast great beauty of the wilderness.
This is a film about work, its personal importance and its declining value. McDormand isn't so much acting as she is existing in this role, and when it comes to the work Fern manages to scrape up, she puts her back into it. Fern is focused and intense on the job. She thrives in action, whether she's taping Amazon boxes, scrubbing toilets, slicing deli meats or shoveling potatoes. She likes work, any kind of good, honest work. She hates when work ends. But it's hard, rough, dehumanizing labor. And the seasons change. The gigs end. The parking lots become too cold for sleeping in a van.
Relationships on the road are temporary but deeply felt. She connects with Linda (Linda May) and Swankie (Swankie) and Dave (David Strathairn), the only one for whom she comes close to giving up the nomad life. But Zhao carefully sidesteps every sentimental story choice in Fern's friendships, because Fern is not sentimental. She's a crystalline version of the American bootstraps attitude, mostly refusing help and affection from others. In her, some may see freedom, some may see pain and loss, some may see her as trapped. She's all of that, which demonstrates the sheer thematic magnitude of the film.
Zhao, who wrote, directed, produced and edited the film, is a master at subtle, deft filmmaking, rich with complexity. Conversations allude to the housing financial crisis, the casual bourgeois greed Fern runs from, into the arms of van life proselytizers, a collective on the margins sharing resources, who promise a life free from property and wage slavery, imagining a new way of life. But is it utopian? Lyrical montages set to the gorgeous piano compositions of Ludovico Einaudi contain all the beauty, pain, ugliness and exhilaration of Fern's journey.
As Fern wanders through the crumbling remnants of Empire, it strikes you that "Nomadland" feels simultaneously like both a memory and a prophecy. Zhao has managed to marry these juxtaposing ideas in her film, which is the essence of bittersweet distilled into an arrow and shot straight through the heart. And Zhao doesn't miss.
'NOMADLAND' 4 stars. Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie. Directed by Chloé Zhao. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Rated R for some full nudity. In theaters and on Hulu.