Frances McDormand seems like she’d be a hoot on a road trip.
Just think of the conversations, if her speeches during her 2018 run toward Oscar glory are any indication: When she won best actress for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” McDormand compared victory to snowboarder Chloe Kim doing an Olympic halfpipe, shouted out the need for inclusion riders to ensure gender and racial equality, and ordered the crowd to look around at the female nominees “because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed.” And this was after a Golden Globe speech in which she espoused a need for tequila and told the audience, “The women in this room tonight are not here for the food. We are here for the work.”
Suffice it to say, she probably wouldn’t be at a loss for words.
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Her latest acting showcase (though not exactly showy) is a relatively quiet one. In director Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” (in theaters Dec. 4), which premiered Friday at Toronto and Venice film festivals, McDormand stars as a 61-year-old woman named Fern who travels around the country on her own and lives out of her white van (with the awesome nickname “Vanguard”) after she loses both her husband and her conventional home when their rural Nevada mining town is essentially wiped out in an economic collapse.
“I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” Fern tells a concerned friend after a nap on a weight bench at a sporting-goods store.
There are quirks to the role that remind of McDormand’s arguably most famous character, Minnesota police chief Marge Gunderson in “Fargo,” for which she won her first Oscar in 1997. Then “Three Billboards” gave McDormand another great, albeit blistering, role, playing the angry mother of a murdered teen girl who curses out a priest and throws Molotov cocktails at the police station.
There’s fire in Fern as well, but it’s much more understated comparatively. McDormand’s character stokes a passion for the road, singing Christmas carols as she drives, taking pride in caring for a van that others deem “ratty,” and sticks to her van plan when her sister (Melissa Smith) implores Fern to come back home: “You left a big hole by leaving.”
McDormand lends an unbreakable steeliness to Fern but also contentment and vulnerability. She still wears her wedding ring, though Dave (David Strathairn), one of her fellow nomads, emerges as a sort of love interest and way out. There’s also some wonder in McDormand’s performance when it comes to nature and community: In one long tracking shot in South Dakota, she walks by neighboring RVers contentedly as the sun rises, seeing herself as part of a tight-knit mobile unit. Whether she’s working at a Badlands campsite or taking a seasonal holiday job at an Amazon fulfillment center, Fern sees the same familiar faces, though at some point she does have to deal with what she’s left behind.
Like her Oscar-winning gigs, “Nomadland” lets McDormand unleash her array of talents in a role that feels real and universal. And it just might send her on another trip to the Academy’s grandest stage in April.
She won’t need to ask for directions.
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