Chloe Zhao‘s Nomadland is a moody, mesmerizing bulls-eye — a 21st Century Grapes of Wrath minus the simmering anger of Tom Joad and the villainy of random predators.  Like John Ford and John Steinbeck‘s 1940 classic, Zhao’s film is pure Americana, set against a backdrop of brusque fate and heartless capitalism, shaded with angst and no shortage of adversity and yet sustained by a certain persistence of spirit, both in front of and behind the camera. 

It’s a masterful, painterly portrayal of the American dispossessed, and a fascinating, character-rich study of a roaming vagabond and a constantly evolving community of weathered, mostly retirement-age homeless victims of a cruel economy (it’s set in the wake of the ’09 recession). 

I respected Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, which, like Nomadland, is about a sympathetic character who’s stuck in a tough situation with no apparent way out.  But I didn’t love it for the rigid scheme and an ending that was mostly about resignation.

Nomadland is on another level.  Within five minutes I knew it was a much better, more ambitious film — quietly somber and yet grander in scope, gentler, sadder.

A Best Actress nomination is absolutely locked and loaded for Frances McDormand and her performance as Fern, a sturdy 60something, widowed and close to broke and living out of a van and with no interest in settling. She’s an iron-willed survivor coping with extreme vulnerability; amiable and attentive and yet closed off or at least resistant to emotional attentions on a certain level, self-described as “house-less” as opposed to homeless, moving from job to job, camp to camp, parking lot to parking lot.  Inscrutable and yet scrutable. 

Nomadland, trust me, is going to be Best Picture nominated.  Obviously. Zhao will be Best Director nominated.  Joshua James Richard‘s magic-hour cinematography will also lasso a nom. But not, I’m told, Ludovico Einaudi‘s haunting piano score, because it wasn’t composed for the film.

A friend told me that Nomadland, which he felt had shortchanged him due to a lack of some of the usual usuals (carefully-plotted story, second-act pivot, decisive ending), would’ve been better as a half-hour short.  I strongly disagree due to the incontestable fact that it grows and deepens and adds more detail with each and every scene.  It’s a portrait piece.  

By the end you’re left with a full understanding of an industrious but somewhat closed-off woman who doesn’t want to invest in anything but her own discipline, and is curiously resistant to any overtures that verge on the intimate.  She can only live in the unstable now, in her own hard but not quite miserable life.

Thank fortune for Fern as well as the audience that Nomadland is full of humanist grace notes…charity, kindness, confessions, helping hands.

Shot in 2.39:1 (which none of the critics so far have even mentioned), it’s all character and atmosphere and mood — “tone poem” is the most favored term thus far.  The enhancements are, in this order, (a) McDormand McDormand McDormand, (b) a winning supporting turn by David Straitharn as a kindly, would-be romantic partner, (c) a steady supply of brief turns by real homeless folk, (c) the painterly images…gently dusky and soft and glowing, (d) Zhao’s crisp, urgent editing and especially (e) Einaudi’s score, which pulls you in you right away and captures exactly the right meditative tone.

Nomadland summoned memories of Agnes Varda‘s Vagabond (’85), but that was a darker, scruffier, less emotionally supple piece than Nomadland (or so I recall) and of course Sandrine Bonnaire‘s Mona was a twentysomething and even less readable than Fern.

A fair number of 21st Century films have captured the oddly spirited and damaged sadness of homeless people coping with tough, marginally sanitary, hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth conditions (Time Out Of Mind, Shelter, The Soloist), but they all had some kind of plot-driven angle with an identified problem (heroin addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, lingering anguish over a personal disaster) and the faint possibility of rescue or redemption, or at least solace.

Nomadland delivers no “story” to speak of, no inciting incident, no second-act pivot, no pocket-drop ending, but it’s probably the most profound and heart-softening film of this kind ever made in this country or region.  (At least from my perspective.) Because it’s an experience that really and truly envelops you and increasingly sinks in, drop by drop and moment by moment.

It was announced an hour ago that Nomadland has won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion Award. Searchlight will open it on 12.4