In an alternate universe, one without a pandemic, writer/director/editor Chloé Zhao would have had two 2020 releases under her belt: Nomadland and Eternals, the latter a Marvel blockbuster about immortal cosmic superheroes. But in the universe we live in, Eternals simmers patiently on the back burner, awaiting its November 2021 premiere; it doesn't even have a trailer as of this writing. As Nomadland is a completely expected extension of the "poetic vérité" style that Zhao established in her first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, I can only wonder how her quiet, personal approach to filmmaking will fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's like having Terrence Malick direct Doctor Strange.
Comparisons with Malick are unavoidable when examining Zhao's work – at least her work thus far. Although she eschews his spirituality and pretentious voiceovers in favor of a warmer, more character-driven cinema, she shares his passion for montage, throwaway dialogue, and "magic hour", shooting seemingly half her films' scenes during sunset, dusk, and afterglow. Not that there's anything wrong with that: Nomadland is gorgeous to behold, and I'm so glad movie theaters opened back up again in Los Angeles in time for me to catch it on the big screen, where it belongs.
Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a recently widowed sixtysomething who, forced to abandon the mining community of Empire, Nevada when the mine shuts down and Empire becomes a ghost town, decides to live in her van full-time, driving around the American West and picking up work where she can. She joins a community of like-minded retirees who meet once a year in Arizona, although to call this collection of peripatetic loners a "community" would be a stretch. Fern is no different, so while she is happy to interact with others, she is equally happy to part ways with them. And thus much of the film's run time shows Fern on her own, experiencing the ups and downs of her solitary existence. (When David Strathairn pops up at a get-together, we know we're going to bump into him again, given that he's the only other professional actor in the cast. But we also know that McDormand would never play a woman who gives up the life she wants for a man, so his character doesn't present any dilemma for Fern.)
Nomadland is a meditative film, and some viewers will find it boring. I myself thought it was intimate and even relevant, and if it doesn't have the impact that The Rider does, it's only because of the inevitable distraction that recognizable Hollywood faces bring to Zhao's storytelling. But as with her earlier work, Nomadland gives us a fascinating look at a nearly invisible American subculture. Zhao neither praises nor criticizes Fern's way of life; she merely documents it, in all its beauty, difficulty, and loneliness.