“Nomadland,” the sober, provocative third feature from writer-director Chloe Zhao, is a recreational-vehicle drama with a superior air hanging above it. In the 1960s and 1970s, America was discovered on motorcycles. Today’s castoffs, dropouts and rebels drive vans. You know something superior is up and that the picture is making a statement, and you can be sure that it’s going to offer biting comment on job scarcity, the plight of transient workers and a broken economy.
You feel this way during the first half-hour of “Nomadland,” and then you fall into the satisfying rhythm of this determinedly articulate film. A middle-aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand), who has hit the road in a ramshackle van after four tough losses: her husband’s death, the loss of her job, the closing of the factory where both worked and the extinction of Empire, Nevada, where the factory was located. Uprooted by this cruel domino effect, Fern rides the highways of the West in a vehicle she names Vanguard.
Fern doesn’t communicate much with the audience or the people she meets on her journey, but after a while it doesn’t seem to matter. Fern’s fellow drifters are not professional actors; they’re real vagabonds — some of them are born again, some are comical, others are just plain bizarre, and they almost steal the movie from McDormand. We accept them in their moving isolation against the magnificent Southwestern landscapes of desert, mountains and flora.
Vanguard and the other RVs roll down macadam highways and dusty trails that look like ribbons under skies of remarkable purity and the soundtrack soothes with solo piano pieces that oddly counterpoint the yearning for liberation from the darkness. Periodically, like a group taking a communal break, the RV-ers stop (and so does the movie) for quiet encounters with Linda May, like Fern a widow, who is making her last stand on the road before terminal cancer claims her, and an elderly nomad whose idyll is tinged with unmistakable desperation.
Suddenly, though, a strange thing happens. There comes on the scene a second professional actor, David Straithairn, playing Dave, a bearded, gentlemanly drifter who makes a living working temporary jobs at fast-food joints and Amazon, a favorite of the able-bodied RV-ers. Dave is attracted to Fern and everything that has been accepted earlier as a sort of lyrical vision of hard times (the story takes place immediately after the Great Recession) suddenly looks flat and contrived.
McDormand is very good in an essentially reactive role. She has the tough task of listening to the stories of the people she meets on the road and responding to them, a job she performs with understated intensity. In addition to McDormand and the amateur supporting cast, the film’s good things are the piano score, the lovely, impressionistic photography by Joshua James Richards, the faces of a forgotten America. These things are continually compelling (the romance angle is not) and occasionally dazzle the senses. Fern went out looking for America and found an uneasy freedom.