Do you know D.C.?

Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.

What would a modern cowboy look like? The image of a White man with spurs and a revolver wandering from ranch to ranch personifies the romantic idea of the wild freedom of the frontier. But John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are too limiting for a modern reckoning with the West. Nomadland, the latest film from Chloé Zhao, is an attempt to answer that question. Like in her last film, The Rider, Zhao mixes fiction and documentary to depict Americans who strive for dignity and purpose along society’s fringe. She complicates that purpose by putting an accomplished, recognizable actor in the lead role. Frances McDormand is more than capable of acting alongside non-actors, and her gifts become more necessary as we learn what drives the complex character she portrays.

McDormand plays Fern, a widower who has no choice but to leave the Nevada town where she lives. The adjacent plant recently closed, so the town and its people essentially vanished (Zhao’s screenplay is an adaptation of a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, which describes a contingent of older laborers moving across the country looking for work). Now Fern wanders the Western United States looking for work, living out of a customized van. She sometimes sees familiar faces along the road, since there are many who also prefer this lifestyle. Most of those cast are actual nomads, many of whom have the same understated naturalism that McDormand exudes. As Zhao follows Fern over the course of about a year, we see that living in a van is more of a choice than a necessity. Something keeps her on the road, even when she meets kind people who gently try and help her.

Zhao shrewdly juxtaposes beauty with monotony. In an early sequence, Fern works in an Amazon fulfillment center, and she grimly boxes our random crap (Nomadland is not an issue-based movie about Amazon’s labor practices, just realistic about where people find work). Then there is another scene where Fern strolls through the temporary desert settlement where she lives, chatting with her temporary neighbors, and Zhao uses a tracking shot at magic hour to suggest the inimitable beauty of the west. The suggestion is that the struggle and occasional indignity of Fern’s work is worth it because she gets to maintain the rugged individualism she craves.

The film’s pace is deliberate and rewards patience. It is almost entirely from Fern’s point of view, and she has lived enough so that now she is in no hurry. McDormand underplays the role, focusing on the immediate task or problem at hand, although over time, we start to see the pain that informs her life. She is still grieving over the loss of her husband, to the point where meaningful relationships are too much for her. David Strathairn, reliable as ever, plays a man who is patient and observant enough to develop a rapport with Fern. His attempt to push through her defenses, establishing a more romantic relationship, is where the film finds its emotional core.

Although it has no action or raised voices, Nomadland is never boring. Zhao’s formal gifts invite curiosity, whether it’s a simple dialogue scene or Fern driving through big sky country. Once we are curious, we come to care for Fern because she is a good, proud person who would rather struggle than take charity. That leads to some sense of frustration, but that frustration is borne out of affection. By the time we see more of her extended family, including someone who offers a feeble olive branch, Zhao convinces us that Fern cannot help but live like she does. She has no choice, and she is driven by something deeper than the need for comfort.

Last November, the drama Hillbilly Elegy was a feeble depiction of “how the other half lives.” Through histrionics and bad makeup, director Ron Howard and his actors try to understand people who left West Virginia for Ohio. The attempt is more condescending than successful because Howard shows these people without fully understanding them. In its own quiet way, Nomadland is a gentle rebuke of that kind of maudlin filmmaking. Most people, whether they live in mansions or vans, want a lot of the same things. This film is about someone who wants something slightly different, and she is so assured that she is ultimately pretty convincing.

Nomadland is available to stream on Hulu on Feb. 19.