Did you know that in the Academy's 93-year history, only one woman (Katherine Bigelow of 2009's "The Hurt Locker") has ever broken through the glass ceiling to win the Oscar for best director? I'm betting that's about to change. That's because Chloe Zhao, the Chinese-born director of a wondrous work of art called "Nomadland," fully deserves every award on the books for the scope of her virtuosity and the depth of her feeling. In only her third film, after 2015's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" and 2018's "The Rider, Zhao joins the ranks of the giants.
"Nomadland," out this week from Searchlight, is based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 nonfiction book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century." The bestseller tracks the wanderlust of Americans traveling the country in vans searching for jobs and snatches of human connection. The film follows the lead of its two female creators. First, there's Zhao, 38, who wrote, directed and edited the film, and whose custom is to use non-actors as much as possible to add to the realism. And the second is Frances McDormand, 63, a two-time Oscar winner ("Fargo," "Three Billboards") who optioned the book and plays a role that's not even contained in its pages.
How would a star of McDormand's magnitude square with Zhao's decision to people her film with real-life nomads, such as Bob Wells, Linda May and Charlene Swankie (if they give Oscars for non-pros, save one for Swankie) -- all of whom make indelible impressions playing slightly altered versions of themselves? It turns out that McDormand blends in with grit and grace. Both McDormand and Zhao lived out of their vans during the four-month shoot that took them from the Badlands of the West to the shores of the Pacific, vividly captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards.
As imagined by Zhao and McDormand, Fern is a childless widow whose Nevada town went bust after its sheetrock factory closed. That left Fern, who also worked as a substitute teacher, on the road in her van, finding employment in places as diverse as an Amazon Fulfillment Center and a beet-sugar harvesting plant. McDormand worked among actual employees and mingled with those with whom she shared campgrounds, mostly white and older like herself. "I'm not homeless," Fern is quick to point out, "I'm houseless."
Fern drifts into an almost relationship with Dave (David Strathairn), another nomad. Strathairn, an Oscar nominee for "Goodnight and Good Luck," shares McDormand's affinity for unadorned acting. There's not an ounce of Hollywood gloss in his deeply felt and moving performance. Strathairn and McDormand never disturb the delicate balance so finely calibrated by Zhao. When the outside world intrudes through Dave's family and Fern's sister Dolly (Melissa Smith), Fern is quick to return to the rootlessness of the road.
None of this was explained. Fern isn't a talker; she's the ultimate listener and the film is about her growing union with nature, as something not to be feared but embraced. In one scene, Fern floats naked in a creek, alone, yes, but also at peace. How strange and marvelous that Zhao, with her roots in China, should be so skilled at capturing the nomadic spirit ingrained in the American character. "Nomadland" can move you to joy and tears, Her film, set in 2011, resonates powerfully right now as the pandemic pulls the safety net out from under all of us.
McDormand is magnificent in one of the defining roles of her career. Fern experiences loneliness and even desperation, but the next direction is her choice, not one prescribed by others in a society that tends to warehouse its aging population. The defiant joy in McDormand's quietly devastating performance is a gift. And Zhao gets it all, without condescending or romanticizing, helping us share the separate journeys of these vagabond van-dwellers who aren't ready to accept that there are no fresh frontiers. It's that questing spirit that makes "Nomadland" unique and unforgettable. (Rated R.)
Also new this week:
"Sound of Metal": A rock drummer loses his hearing. "Sound of Metal," hitting Amazon on Dec. 4, fleshes out that premise with ferocity, feeling and powerhouse acting by Riz Ahmed. Don't miss it.
Ahmed, an Emmy winner for "The Night Of," burns up the screen as Ruben Stone, a punk-metal drummer and recovering heroin addict whose world collapses when his hearing starts to go. Screenwriter Darius Marder, in a strong directing debut, conveys sensory loss by slowly draining sound from his movie. It's devastating.
Ruben's default reaction is panic. This can't be happening to him, the cool dude with the tattoos and peroxide hair who travels from gig to gig in an RV he shares with his bandmate/hot girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Lou is supportive, but needs to get back on the road. That leaves Ruben at a rehab center run by Vietnam vet Joe, incisively played by Paul Raci, the son of a deaf parent. Ruben resists learning sign language, preferring to spend money he doesn't have on expensive surgery with tinny, clanky results. For Joe and others in the deaf culture, surgery is seen as a betrayal of the value and dignity of deafness.
"Sound of Metal" could have lost itself in the politics of those choices. But Marder dodges therapy cliches to focus on a deeply personal story. And Ahmed, taking Ruben from a thrashing berserker to a man inching toward self-discovery, meets every challenge. His astonishing performance will take a piece out of you. So will his movie. (Rated R.)
"Red, White and Blue": Director Steve McQueen continues to shame formula Hollywood storytelling with "Red, White and Blue," the third of his five-part "Small Axe" anthology now available on Amazon. In this gripping true story, John Boyega commands the screen as Leroy Logan, a scientist who joined London's Metropolitan Police Force in the 1980s to challenge racism from within.
If you only know the British-Nigerian star from the most recent "Stars Wars" trilogy, it might come as a shock to learn that Boyega is one of the finest actors of his generation.
Boyega reveals Leroy, the studious son of Jamaican immigrants, as having doubts about becoming an instrument for change. With his own father, Kenneth (a superb Steve Toussaint), a victim of police brutality, Leroy knows his dad will feel betrayed to see him hit the streets as a symbol of law and order.
Leroy even takes heat from his bestie Lee John (Tyrone Huntley), who sasses him "Star Wars" style: "What, you want to be a Jedi?" He almost is, acing his training at the police academy and becoming a recruitment ad for so-called "colored officers."
Facing racist rancor from a Force that is definitely not with him, Leroy is attacked during a robbery as white officers ignore his calls for backup. With cries for police reform everywhere these days, the film bursts with stinging relevancy to the Black Lives Matter movement. In using history to show us how we keep repeating it, "Red, White and Blue" touches a raw nerve. (Not rated.)