It doesn’t take long for “Nomadland” to land with its intended audience. The minute the movie begins, it’s there: A creeping, aching, horrifyingly believable realism that permeates every shot, every line of dialogue, every interaction, every dynamic. I don’t know how director Chloe Zhao did it, but she managed to extract such sincerity from every cinematic source available to her, to the point that one could be easily fooled into thinking this is a documentary. Its story of the disposable workforce left to fend for themselves by a combination of unfettered American greed and deeply, deeply corrupt federal and state governments is somehow both hard to believe and impossible to ignore. It’s hard to believe that a country branded as the beacon of hope and light in the entire world could be revealed as so profoundly and deliberately flawed, and yet we have seen and heard tales of only-in-America misery for decades now that have come home to roost. Along with Frances McDormand’s Fern, we travel across the ghost towns and marginal encampments of the permanently displaced, we cringe internally as they’re treated with overbearing sympathy by well-intentioned friends and strangers, and we watch McDormand’s face absorb the continuing hits of life with a weary, ground-down dignity. I’ll admit that I found the last 15 minutes or so to be a bit on the contrived side, as though the narrative suddenly remembered itself and tries to shoehorn a last-minute catharsis for the audience, but getting there is a profound, and profoundly sad, cinematic experience that’s as thought-provoking as it is rewarding. In supporting roles, Charlene Swankie and Linda May deliver the kind of quietly electrifying performances that most professional actors can only dream of.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of 5)