By Leah Greenblatt
September 11, 2020 at 04:00 PM EDT
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Joshua Richardson/Searchlight Pictures

If there were a Marlboro Woman, she might look like Frances McDormand's Fern: flinty, unfettered, free to roam. But Fern's home on the range is a van, and her itinerant life — as captured in Chloé Zhao's spare, extraordinary new drama Nomadland — is less a choice than a semipermanent condition of a nation whose safety net has evaporated.

Though her character is Zhao's creation, the movie (joint-premiering tonight at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival) is populated by real people from the non-fiction book the script is based on, Jessica Bruder's 2017 Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. They're senior citizens, mostly, or folks in late middle age, cut loose by the Great Recession and compelled to carve what they can from a gig economy. In a different world maybe, they'd be loading into an Airstream to visit the grandkids or see the Grand Canyon; instead they're stacking boxes in 12-hour shifts at Amazon warehouses, filling the shelves at Home Depot, manning fry stations at fast-food restaurants — whatever it takes to scrape out enough for gas and groceries.

Fern doesn't want to leave her home in Empire, Nev., but staying isn't really an option: Her late husband is gone, and following the shutdown of the local gypsum plant, the place essentially cancels itself out; even the ZIP code is discontinued. (This really happened, in 2011; the town has since been partially reopened.) So she packs most of what she has in storage, and puts the rest in her little white cargo van — a space that will soon become kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and portable living room.

There's good money at Amazon through the Christmas rush, but an uninsulated van is no place to spend the holidays in subzero Nevada, and a casual invitation from a warehouse friend steers her southwest to Arizona. That's where her fellow nomads have gathered, and where she meets a kind, crinkly-eyed man named Dave (the excellent David Strathairn, one of the few professionals in the cast). It's also where she begins to put a shape and a name to what she's doing — a kind of found philosophy of road-dog freedom espoused by figures like the group's avuncular, gnome-like leader, Bob Wells (as himself).

What follows is mostly episodic; small, naturalistic scenes whose scale vacillates between intimate and grand: Fern squatting to pee by a fence post in the driving rain, loading crates of potatoes into a processor, pouring fresh coffee for her fellow campers at daybreak. (One monologue, delivered by a snowy-haired alum of the book named Swankie, is so lovely it nearly stops your heart.)

But to call the movie's arc uneventful would be to miss how carefully and exquisitely Zhao has composed it. Along with her 2017 breakout, The Rider, the 38-year-old writer and director is fast becoming one of our premier chroniclers of a certain kind of forgotten American: raw-boned, untethered, on the margins. It's hard, too, to picture any actress other than McDormand (who also has a producer credit) in the part. She doesn't just become Fern, she creates her: melding Zhao's screenplay to her own fierce character in a way that feels almost uncannily real. Together, they've managed to make that rare thing: a film that feels both necessary and sublime. A

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