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Nomadland Is a Great and Terrible Film

While Nomadland goes out of its way to avoid talking politics, its genius is in locating the emotional truth of what it’s like to be one of the many millions of Americans cast adrift by disaster.

Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road in her van and discovers she’s one of many thousands of elderly Americans forced into an impoverished, nomadic life. (Searchlight Pictures)

Nomadland is a schizophrenic cinematic experience that may have you arguing with yourself as well as others for hours or even days after viewing it.

On the one hand, it’s an emotional powerhouse of a film, terribly moving, painfully relevant to our grim times, and written and directed by the extremely gifted Chloe Zhao (The Rider) in a style of restrained beauty. It’s centered on Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow in her sixties who’s been forced out of her home and her life in Empire, Nevada, a one-industry town that was destroyed in real life by the closing of the US Gypsum plant. Employees like Fern were evicted from company housing when the plant shut down.

Fern takes to the road in her van, and soon discovers she’s one of many thousands of elderly Americans forced into an impoverished, nomadic life. Surrounded by a cast largely made up of actual “nomads,” such as Linda Mae, (Charlene) Swankie, and Bob Wells playing themselves, and doing some of the best nonprofessional acting I’ve ever seen outside of an Italian neorealist film, McDormand gives a performance that’s so admirably direct, intense, and spare, she’ll win all the awards or there’s no justice in this world. (And we realize there’s almost no justice in this world.)

On the other hand, the film’s a reprehensibly fictionalized fantasy about the lives of elderly dispossessed people who live in their vehicles and work seasonal gig-economy temp jobs, which are generally the only jobs they can get. It’s based on the 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, a brutal study of how the Great Recession forced senior citizens out of their homes and communities. Romanticizing the existence of senior citizens roaming America’s highways and byways seeking work and free parking, Nomadland soft-pedals the nightmare that is the gig economy.

I first noticed this tendency in an early scene of the film when McDormand’s character, Fern, gets a job as a seasonal temp worker at Amazon and is shown strolling through the vast warehouse carrying a single lightweight bin, smiling and nodding to fellow workers who also do their jobs at a leisurely pace. That hardly matches available descriptions of what it’s like to work at Amazon, as Bruder’s book — but not the film — makes clear.

Amazon warehouses are notorious for denying bathroom breaks to their workers and for the large number of repetitive stress injuries on the job. Workers in Amazon warehouses don’t stroll about like Fern — their forced into a relentless pace boxing up packages or they’re simply fired on the spot. As Paris Marx put it in his earlier Jacobin review, “Nomads in Search of a Villain,” the elderly in particular suffer under these conditions, yet are actively recruited by Amazon:

Bruder notes that Amazon quickly saw the value in these wandering workers and became their “most aggressive recruiter.” Amazon gets federal tax credits for hiring many of them because they fall into disadvantaged categories, and the company also benefits from the fact that these workers demand little in terms of pay and benefits and do not present a unionization risk — in fact, “most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered.”

Marx also notes that in creating the fictional character of Fern, writer-director Chloe Zhao emphasizes that

there are two types of nomads: those who were forced into that kind of life by the financial crash and those who were always, deep down, nomads at heart. She believes that Fern falls in the latter category.

And indeed, the character of Fern is shown to be finding the life she always longed for, after settling for decades for her husband’s preferred life in Empire. Fern is the ideal nomad, after learning a few basics about preparedness on the road. She declares firmly, “I like to work.” She’s hale and healthy, she loves a self-reliant life, and she craves solitude in nature. Her mentor is Swankie, who is terminally ill but determined to live out her last months in a return trip to Alaska before reaching the point when she can no longer care for herself. At that point, she plans to commit suicide, using the method she learned from Dr. Jack Kervorkian’s right-to-die movement.

Fern’s odyssey is so redemptive, in fact, it’s portrayed as a strange kind of ultimate good fortune to lose everything and be forced out onto the road. The narrative upends the logic of The Grapes of Wrath — Depression-era Dust Bowl conditions created by rapacious capitalist farming practices destroys the Joad family’s livelihood, the bank takes their farm, and their grim “Okie” trek to the supposed promised land of California ends in further disaster, breaking down the last thing they have left — their strong family ties.

Nomadland, though, is set up to have us cheer Fern on as she turns down two fairly luxurious living arrangements — her upper-middle-class sister’s home, which would clearly be personally constricting, and a far more idyllic guesthouse on gorgeous green acreage, offered by her formerly van-dwelling friend Dave (David Strathairn) and his wealthy family. The sense of fantasy is very strong here, but makes total sense in terms of fiction — Fern is on her quest for self-actualization which can only be found in natural, solitary splendor.

In fact, there could be no better character construction than nomadic-by-choice Fern when it comes to sanding off the edges of any political impact Nomadland might have, and it seems this is hardly an accident:

In interviews, the filmmakers have given mixed answers about whether Nomadland is a “political” movie. Zhao told Indiewire last September that she wanted to avoid politics: “I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal — the loss of a loved one, searching for home.” She told Vulture’s Alison Willmore that politics were embedded into Nomadland’s every frame “if you look deeply… it’s just, yes, there’s the beautiful sunset behind it.”

This problem with Nomadland is one we recognize readily on the Left, because it’s so familiar. It’s another of those films dealing with subject matter that’s clearly, harshly, inescapably political, but somewhere in the development process, it’s been softened and compromised to a significant extent by people involved who are convinced that the best kind of cinema is totally apolitical and ideology-free. (Pro tip: there is no such thing.)

Their goal is often the same — to create a highly personal, individual story that is ultimately inspirational rather than critical of the systemic horror show that’s at least partially on display in the film as well, only with a distractingly “beautiful sunset behind it.”

But having said all that, Zhao’s talent and the film’s power are still undeniable. Nomadland addresses both our profound fears of, and our poignant longing for, an alternative way of living that makes sense given our nation’s ongoing state of calamity.

The film takes on an increasingly urgent necessity — we must start thinking seriously about how we’re going to live in ever more catastrophic conditions, in terms of the environment as well as the economy. We can’t wait, God knows, for our government to take action. Millions of people are already somewhere in the process of losing or having lost almost everything they have. Even those of us fortunate enough to have a somewhat sturdier foothold on health and economic security at present recognize how precarious it all is. Hopes of conditions stabilizing, and the possibility of political solutions that might stave off the worst, can’t stop the 3 AM terror of the final catastrophic loss that will unmoor us permanently from the life we know.

It’s a huge relief to see a film about this — an organized group of dispossessed people ahead of us on this bleak road, having already begun to grapple with migratory life, or at any rate a kind of forced, stark minimalism. People — not doomsday preppers stockpiling food and guns, but just regular people — are doing practical work on the question of how you’re going to survive. When you’re a new pauper, you’ll sell off whatever’s left, scrounge up a used van, and join Bob Wells’s “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” a yearly gathering of van-dwellers in Quartzville, Arizona. There, as shown in the film, you’ll get tutorials on how to make a van more livable, and what size bucket you’ll need for human waste. You’ll trade your few unnecessary possessions for nonelectric can openers and pot holders and other necessities. Most importantly, you’ll find a little community again.

But beyond just the necessities for survival, Nomadland takes on another issue that strikes fear into our hearts: How are you going to find any beauty or worth in your life when the shit really hits the fan? This is a burning question that left politics don’t very often answer because it involves an emotional reality, which is almost as important to people as a material reality. And the film is very good at emotional reality.

Because if everything we were taught to value was gone, and there was nothing left for us in our disintegrating civilization, how could we think of ourselves in a way that salvaged our lives? We have to admit, most of us would be the other kind of nomad — forced into it. Unlike Fern, we’d struggle to fathom how we’d find redemption on the road. Most of us have already gathered from our COVID lockdown experience, we’re no good at this — the solitude, the lonely grind, the self-reliance in the face of so much work, challenge, loss, grief, and calamity. If there’s a way to infuse all that with hope, energy, and even grandeur, we sure need to know it now.

The film wants to remind us of an American cultural legacy that can always allow us to reimagine our lives in terms of the aspirational. We can “light out for the territory” like Huck Finn, saunter through John Muir’s woods, “walk that ribbon of highway” like Woody Guthrie, go “on the road” like Jack Kerouac, rediscover America like the bikers in Easy Rider, find our true selves in the desert once all the artifice is seared off us, like in Thelma and Louise. “The road” never stops being meaningful to Americans. Even when the road is a highway through desolate Western scrubland and the loneliest, ugliest, scariest place in the world, as in a Coen brothers’ film like Blood Simple or No Country for Old Men, still it compels us. In our cultural imaginary, it’s our desolate scrubland!

It’s a poisonous legacy in many ways, obviously. But still, there’s no denying what a relief it is to see in Nomadland the image of the Rocky Mountains on the horizon after a vast stretch of flatlands, viewed through the windshield of a traveling vehicle, and to think, “That’s what I’ll do, I’ll just drive, and keep on driving, right out into it.”

There, Nomadland tells us, there you’ll find freedom at last. Nature will cease to be a distant backdrop and become your true, immediate, sense-expanding home. You’ll also find, eventually, a warmer, more accepting, and far less oppressive community than the one you probably have now, because it’ll be a community of people who’ve all been thrown away, and are now united on equal terms.

We have very few utopian films anymore, dystopian visions having taken over decades ago. But this is one — even more interestingly, it’s a utopian film emerging out of a dystopian framework of a failing nation, which is probably what gives it such startling emotional power.