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Review: 'Nomadland'

Frances McDormand.

Where does one begin?

Except to say that she is one of the most remarkable actors of our time.

She’s now won three Oscars for her unforgettable screen performances, as Marge Gundeson in Fargo (1996), as Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), and now as Fern in the Oscar winning film Nomadland. Her resume includes over 100 awards and nominations.

She is formidable. While many actresses find themselves fading away in their later years, McDormand’s flame only burns brighter and brighter in every project she undertakes.

She’s courageous, allowing herself to age gracefully and authentically on screen, embracing the physical changes that go along with the relentless march of time.

And she’s fearless, taking on challenging roles that require the fine touch of a true artist.

Rather than going big, she chooses to go small, retreating into the minute, telling details that define her characters. It’s an exercise in restraint and minimalism.

People unfamiliar with her line of work might be tempted to say that it doesn’t look like she’s acting. Her peers and admirers know better. She has taken her craft to a whole other level. And she makes it look easy.

Nomadland is a prime example.

It is director Chloe Zhao’s movie adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book about a struggling retirement-aged woman on a lonely journey. Having lost her husband and her job in a desolate, small town, she sets out in search of what to do with whatever remains of her life.

She doesn’t have much in the way of money or material possessions. Just a high mileage van outfitted with the sparse essentials that make it her bare-bones home on wheels.

She’s a modern-day nomad, traveling the country from town to town in search of part time seasonal work, living dangerously on the edge.

Most of the time she sleeps and lives in the back of the van, bundled up in freezing parking lots.

As in the case of so many good movies and stories that involve a journey of self-discovery, her travels bring her in touch with people who have fallen off the grid and adopted a lifestyle like hers.

They are all displaced souls with a shared uncertainty of what the future might have in store for them. It is their loose common bond.

While we’ve seen this theme played out many times before, it’s never been presented as it is here in Nomadland.

It begins with Monessen, PA native McDormand’s brilliantly underplayed performance. It takes a little getting used to.

The opening reel has a degree of emptiness and ordinariness that may catch audiences off guard. Not much happens.

It’s just a woman rummaging through a storage locker before setting out for a long, unpredictable road trip in a vehicle that might not get her to her final destination, whatever that turns out to be.

But there is a sense of realism that quickly develops that sets this movie apart from most other movies. It ceases feeling like a movie.

The journey seems real and the people she encounters though colorful and offbeat, seem genuinely authentic in a way that characters like this have rarely appeared on film.

As with McDormand’s performance, none of them appear to be acting. The performances, while powerful, seem completely unscripted and unrehearsed.

You can see my interview with Swankie here.....

What transpires plays more like a documentary than a feature film adaptation thanks to the brilliant casting and masterful direction of Chloe Zhao, who creates a totally believable world of people and places.

It’s the perfect backdrop, a sprawling, perfectly constructed reality, for Frances McDormand’s character (Fern) to inhabit.

As mentioned, McDormand’s work here is stunningly good. As always, she becomes the character.

Her preparation for the role included her decision to actually drive and live in the van during production. She immerses herself in the role. It’s textbook performance and craft. A master class in acting.

Nomadland is a breakout film on so many levels. It is sparce and unsparing.

It is both painful and uplifting. And through it all, it never veers outside the parameters of its own reality.

It never ventures into the territory of conventional Hollywood moviemaking in terms of content or style. It mirrors life itself, with all its mundane daily drama and worrisome unpredictability.

In doing that, it is a real triumph, on its own terms.

A description or synopsis of Nomadland could never do it justice. It needs to be seen and experienced.

It is a testament to those modestly budgeted, independent films that prove time and time again that movies made on a shoestring can shine.

It’s a matter of raw talent and unflinching commitment on the part of people who love what they do.

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