by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and a cast of non-professionals/actual “nomads”
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A woman in her sixties, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
Nomadland is one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve seen recently. It mostly reminded me of Brokeback Mountain (2005) with its sprawling vistas of distant mountains, lonely country roads against a looming sky, and desert badlands illuminated by that elusive light that appears only during the “magic hour” so coveted by cinematographers and photographers alike. It’s beautiful and well-made. As a message film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2020…I mean…it’s good and admirable, but it didn’t quite get to me like it was clearly trying to.
As a piece of propaganda (intentional or not), I can see Nomadland being effective for anyone who has been disillusioned of the American Dream by financial troubles. Set in 2011, the film follows Fern (McDormand) as she hits the road in a van after the gypsum mining company her deceased husband worked for folded, displacing an entire town, Empire. Even the town’s zip code was discontinued. Fern literally lives out of her van, which doubles as living quarters, bedroom, dining room, and (revealed in a shot that I was stunned to learn was real) bathroom. She works seasonal jobs throughout the American West at various parks, restaurants, and even an Amazon warehouse during the holidays.
On her travels, she encounters a large community of fellow nomads. Periodically (I think annually), they gather at a location in the middle of the desert to trade goods, share stories and nomadic tips, and basically support each other for a week or a month or whatever…it’s not made clear exactly how long everyone stays before they go their separate ways once more. On this occasion, she meets a fellow traveler named Dave (Strathairn) who trades her for a can opener. Over the course of the film, Fern’s and Dave’s paths will intersect again and again. I thought we were getting the kernel of a corny love story, but not quite. The purpose of their relationship is pragmatic, not romantic.
Another traveler Fern meets is Swankie, a lively woman in her seventies who hangs a skull-and-crossbones flag from her van when she wants no visitors. Honestly, it made me wish I had a similar flag to hang from my neck to communicate the same thing in public. Anyway, Swankie reinforces Fern’s commitment to this way of living by describing trips to Alaska, a visit to a large community of swallows nesting on a cliff while on a canoe trip, and by revealing one of the real reasons Swankie has adopted this lifestyle in the first place. All with no bills to pay, other than gas, food, and vehicular upkeep.
The movie follows Fern from one place to another over the course of a little over a year. We see her working, driving, talking with people she meets, cooking on her tiny gas stove inside her van, dealing with the cold in the winter, reminiscing over old photos and slides. There are two interesting side trips when she can’t avoid reaching out to…well, I guess “civilization” is the right word. One occurs because her beloved van breaks down and she has to get to her sister’s to ask her for repair money. Another occurs when she takes Dave up on an offer to…no, won’t spoil it.
At times, I found myself comparing Nomadland to Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film where Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) finds himself stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. In both situations, the heroes find themselves isolated from civilization. They must both learn to deal with an alternate way of life, and there is no alternative. Adapt or die. (When Swankie learns Fern doesn’t even know how to change a tire, she reprimands her. “You can die out here. You’re out in the wilderness, far away from anybody. You can die out here. Don’t you understand that? You have to take it seriously. You have to have a way to get help. You have to be able to change your own tire!” It’s a sobering reminder that, even though she has a cell phone (how she pays the bill is a mystery to me), Fern must be self-sufficient in order to survive.)
Furthering the similarities to Cast Away, there’s even a moment where Fern has an opportunity to sleep in a real bed. We see her crawl underneath the covers…but in the middle of the night, she creeps back out to her faithful van to get a real night’s sleep, just like Chuck Noland sleeping on the floor of his hotel room.
But what does it all mean? What is Nomadland trying to say? I couldn’t shake the idea that Zhao’s film, based on a book of the same name, was an attempt, like Into the Wild (2007), to romanticize the concept of shedding our material needs, stripping ourselves down to the necessities, and getting back in touch with nature. I have no doubt this notion appeals to many people. Well, that much is clear because nearly everyone in the film besides McDormand and Strathairn are non-actors who are playing themselves, and they’re all nomads, too. But is the movie simply showing me how and why a person makes this decision? Or is it trying to convince me that I should do the same thing? Is this one of Ebert’s “empathy machines” that allows me to live in someone else’s shoes for 107 minutes and experience life through their eyes, or, like Into the Wild, is it making the case that folks who haven’t made this decision themselves are slaves to a corporate system?
At one point, a gentleman named Bob, who is a real person and is one of the main coordinators of the community that meets once a year in the desert, makes a speech to the nomads who have gathered:
I think of an analogy as a work horse. The work horse that is willing to work itself to death, and then be put out to pasture. And that’s what happens to so many of us. If society was throwing us away and sending us as the work horse out to the pasture, we work horses have to gather together and take care of each other. And that’s what this is all about. The way I see it is that the Titanic is sinking, and economic times are changing. And so my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.
I’d be lying if I said his notion wasn’t appealing. Who wouldn’t want to live a life of seeing the country, parts of which many of us may never see in our lifetimes? Never being tied down to a job, to familial obligations, bills, taxes, the eternal quest for the almighty Dollar? I get it. But…if I didn’t have a job, didn’t earn a living, didn’t pay my bills, and have enough left over to buy a home entertainment system including the Blu-ray of Nomadland…I would never have seen this lovely film in the first place.
So, no, the concept of living as a nomad is not something I would seriously embrace…yet. Life is good. I have a job. I have family. I have friends who are as good as family. I have the woman I love beside me. I’ve seen Alaska, England, Greece, New York, Miami, and Key West. Nomadland argues that, if any of that would ever change, there is an alternative to depression and slaving away and eking out a living in my retirement years in a 1-bedroom apartment. Perhaps, on that day, I might re-evaluate my opinion of nomadic living.
But that day is not today.
Tomorrow is not looking good, either.