In January 2011 the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shut down. By July of the same year the town’s zip code had been discontinued. Nomadland makes personal a phenomenon that’s been going on for decades but has accelerated since the big crash of 2008. Of displaced older blue-collar workers who lose their homes and jobs and take to the road, travelling around the US working at any job they can, living out of cars, vans and recreational vehicles, a new nomad class.
The film is based on the 2018 book by Jessica Bruder, an extended piece of non-fiction reporting detailing the phenomenon, and stars Frances McDormand as Fern – the only person in the film not using their own name – one of the migrating horde of nomads who travel from one Amazon dispatch centre (“good money”, says Fern) to another, one seasonal harvest to the next, sharing (a bit), looking out for each other (a bit) and generally making the most of what to many people would be an invitation to lay down and die.
The film is the bastard child of reality TV and features three distinct components, skilfully blended together by director Chloé Zhao, who also did the editing, which on its own would win her buckets of awards in a just world. At its most straightforward this is a documentary and the people we see are actual RV-dwelling nomads. On top of that is a layer of “structured reality” – the most direct lift from reality TV – consisting of McDormand’s interactions with members of the nomad community. And on top of that is a layer of “real acting”. It is all so well blended together, in fact, that when David Strathairn enters the movie as a potential love interest I spent a good time thinking “that nomad guy looks a lot like David Strathairn”. His name – Dave – not having alerted me. Doh.
Anyone expecting a Grapes of Wrath political message has come to the wrong film. Nomadland stays largely out of the political arena, possibly out of an astute realisation that banging the drum just doesn’t work, and partly as a reflection on the nomads themselves – a doughty bunch of resilient self-starters who are determined to hang on to their dignity even in defeat.
Bob Wells is as near as we get. An activist, YouTuber, founder of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of “The Tribe”, Bob’s message – capitalism is going down and the have-nots need to band together – is as close as you’re going to get to socialism, a word never mentioned. The Rendezvous is often referred to as the Burning Man for retirees and perhaps the main shock of watching the film is the age of all these people living hand-to-mouth lives at a time of life when you might expect them to be putting their feet up and buying the grandkids ice cream.
At this point (February 2021) McDormand looks like a shoo-in for the Oscar, which is often handed out in Daniel Day Lewis style to the person who has done the most work rather than given the best performance – living in her van for months, she has clearly thrown herself at this project, though has also pointed out in interviews that at a certain point she gave up the van-dwelling. It was just too tough. All that to one side, it is a remarkable performance, not least because, in order to pass muster with non-actors, real people, McDormand has had to throw away all that screencraft – the stuff Michael Caine goes on about in his acting masterclasses about which eye to turn to the camera etc. She passes.
Being frozen in winter and boiled in summer, earning a pittance for working in shitty jobs, Nomadland sounds like a wallow in misery but it is determined not to go there – the landscape, the wildlife, the swimming in crystal clear streams, the simple things in life are all extolled to the max. And beyond.
And yet. The good-to-be-alive stuff seems also like a feint, a case of protesting too much. There is a sense of great sadness throughout. Fern has lost her husband, job, hometown and way of life, and this story repeats with variations for all the nomads we meet – like 75-year-old Swankie, cheerfully on the road yet dying of cancer.
Where’s the anger? Hiding, I think, that mournful piano of Ludovico Einaudi nudging the viewer beyond feelings of powerless empathy and towards bigger, more political questions. Or that, I am guessing, is the hope.
Nomadland: Surviving American in the 21st Century – the book that inspired the movie at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021