* * * 1/2
Chloé Zhao‘s third feature, Nomadland, is an exercise in extreme compassion. What it lacks in narrative drive it makes up for in total empathy for its myriad characters. If it wins the Oscar this year for Best Film (it is currently the clear favourite) it will stand in stark contrast to last year’s winner, Parasite, which displayed masterful screenwriting and virtuosic filmmaking in every frame. Nomadland, by contrast, feels cobbled together on a wing and a prayer, written far more on set and in the edit suite than at the keyboard, and appealing entirely to the heart rather than the head.
What is virtuosic is Frances McDormand’s central performance as Fern, an itinerant American mid-western ‘nomad’, living out of her van and picking up seasonal blue-collar work. The Oscar race for Best Actress seems to be between her and Carey Mulligan for Promising Young Woman, giving voters a choice between apples and oranges. Mulligan’s work reflects her film’s heightened stylisation. McDormand’s is textbook naturalism. Indeed, given half of her scenes are with non-actors telling their own true stories, any deviation from a purely realistic approach would stand out like a Christmas tree on Mars and upset the film’s delicate, and rather unique, fabric.
Those non-actors are the film’s soul; around them, McDormand’s Fern is as empathetic and compassionate as Zhao. Against the professional actors, such as David Strathairn and Linda May, brought in to give the film at least some sense of narrative, she is allowed to be flintier, and ‘flinty’ may well be McDormand’s middle name. It is a perfect role for her unique essence, and, I dare say, may well end up her signature performance.
Although the film is about America’s mid-western (very white) dispossessed, it feels strangely apolitical. It’s not angry, per se, nor is it blatantly an origin story of Trump’s weirdly self-defeating voting base, although one cannot help make the connection as a viewer (a lot of the film takes place in South Dakota, now infamous for being one of the most mask-resistant, lockdown-resistant, Covid-blasé places on Earth, with infection numbers to match). What it is, relentlessly, is American. If you’re sick of hearing Americans talk about themselves, this film will be your poison. If you can stomach a few more twangy voices, they are presented here with grace, beauty, and, yes, compassion.