McDormand shines (again) — this time in ‘Nomadland’


By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer


Searchlight Pictures presents a film written and directed by Chloe Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder. Rated R (for some full nudity).

“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. I’ve met hundreds of people out there and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. Let’s just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’ And I do. I see them again.” — wisened veteran traveler of the American highways in “Nomadland”

If we were to carve out a Mount Rushmore of actresses who have created a myriad of the most memorable and formidable characters in film history, we’d have to make room for Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis and Frances McDormand, and I’m going to stop right there because there are literally dozens of other worthy candidates, but definitely Frances McDormand, right? Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” and Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Jane in “Friends With Money” and Sara Gaskell in “Wonder Boys” and Elaine Miller in “Almost Famous” and Abby in “Blood Simple,” etc., etc.

Yep. We gotta save a place for Frances McDormand.

McDormand has two best actress Academy Awards and a total of five acting nominations, and she will surely be nominated for her epic and soaring yet beautifully grounded work in writer-director Chloe Zhao’s transformative “Nomadland,” an instant American masterpiece that feels like something John Steinbeck might have written. It’s a crumpled-postcard road movie about the aftermath of an American Dream gone sour, when you find yourself so deep into your life you can see the last horizon, but you still have miles to go before you sleep — and you have only a vague idea about how you’re going to navigate that journey.

Based on the 2017 nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder, this is the kind of film that grabs you from its opening moments and keeps you in its thrall. McDormand’s Fern was a substitute teacher, and her husband worked at the United States Gypsum Corp. in the company town of Empire, Nevada, but the mine closed down, and Fern’s husband, Bo, passed away — and now somewhere in her 60s, Fern is living out of a battered old van and getting by on seasonal jobs such as working at an Amazon fulfillment center.

When Fern bumps into a former neighbor and her high-school daughter, the girl says (not unkindly), “My mom said you’re homeless, is that true?” to which Fern replies, “No, I’m not homeless. I’m just … houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

At the aforementioned Amazon gig, Fern meets the senior citizen Linda May, who lives in an RV in an adjacent parking lot alongside Fern and dozens of other temporary workers. Linda tells Fern about the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a real-life gathering in the La Paz County Fairgrounds in Arizona, where hundreds upon hundreds of van-dwelling nomads gather for a communal experience of selling goods and services, participating in group activities, learning tips and tricks of on-the-road self-sufficiency, and making and/or renewing lifelong friendships. Fern eventually connects with the likes of Bob Wells, Peter Spears and Swankie, all real nomads playing themselves (as is Linda May).

There’s a decidedly off-the-grid, aging hippie vibe to the old-timer nomads, as embodied by Swankie, who is dying of cancer yet speaks with joy about the glory and the wonder of the sights she’s seen from her kayak, whether it’s nests of swallows or a moose family on the banks of a river. Fern’s more of a no-nonsense type, but she surprises us when she recites a poem to a younger nomad, and when she shouts her name into an echoing canyon, as if to reaffirm her existence, her presence, her essence.

The invaluable David Strathairn deserves best supporting actor consideration for his beautifully understated performance as the road-weary nomad Dave, who is retiring the odometer for good and is going to live on his adult son’s farm, and harbors hope Fern will join him. Fern also takes a quick detour to visit her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), who is living a conventional life and doesn’t understand Fern, but instead of the establishment/rebel confrontation we expect, writer-director Zhao delivers something much more nuanced and subtle. There’s not a scene in this movie that hits a wrong note.

If you miss this film, you are robbing yourself of one of the great movie-watching experiences of your life.

‘The World To Come’

Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Mona Fastvold. Written by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen. Rated R. Opens March 2 on demand.

Abigail is living the smallest of lives as a farmer’s wife in the rough country of upstate New York in 1856, wrapped in a shell of grief since the death of her young daughter the year before, resigned to an endless march of days where she will milk the cows and peel potatoes and stoke the fire before her husband joins her at the table for a simple meal and little if any conversation before it’s time for bed and the countdown of the hours until she’ll do it all over again.

Then one day a couple moves into the farm just down the road, and the shy and reserved Abigail is paid a visit by Tallie, who has a twinkle of mischief in her eye, and Abigail has found a friend — a friend whose daily visits become a bright beam of sunshine in an otherwise terribly overcast existence, a friend who becomes something more than a friend.

If Mona Fastvold’s “The World to Come” sounds like the stuff of a short story by a literary talent of note, that’s because it was indeed a short story by the gifted Jim Shepard, who co-wrote the screen adaptation of his bleak, deliberately paced but deeply moving prose poem, with Katherine Waterston’s Abigail often taking pen to paper and serving as the voice-over narrator. Abigail’s rough-hewn husband, Dyer (Casey Affleck), surely loves his wife and would like to try to have children again, but he’s a taciturn man with a heavy weight hanging over him.

It hardly seems possible, but the newly arrived Finney (Christopher Abbott) is even less polished in social situations and less openly affectionate to his wife, Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), than Dyer is with Abigail. There’s a surliness and a meanness to Finney that hints of righteous violence. Little wonder Tallie and Abigail find such joy and solace in each other’s company, sharing bits of gossip and confiding in each other, growing closer and closer emotionally and eventually physically.

Dyer and Finney are not educated nor are they sophisticated men, but they begin to resent their wives’ friendship and eventually to suspect it could be a romance. Even in the lighter, sunnier moments in “The World to Come” (with the changes of season serving as obvious metaphors), there’s a sense of foreboding lurking around the corner. This is not a time and place in American history where two women could end their respective marriages and live out their lives together without repercussions. (Hell, that wasn’t the case a hundred years later.)

With Romania standing in for 1850s New York state, “The World to Come” feels true to its time and place, and all four main players do a spectacularly good job of sounding and acting true to the time. Affleck and Abbott are solid in thankless, decidedly unflashy roles, while Waterston and Kirby are beautiful together. However fraught with peril their love might be, Abigail and Tallie deserve every second of bliss they find in each other.  

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