For some of us, the words “Frances McDormand, Senior Citizen” sound like the clanging of a tomb door above our heads, but there it is.
It was McDormand who saw a role for herself in a film adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and thanks to her involvement, and that of director Chloé Zhao, the result is a naggingly anomalous sui generis that stirs up a complex welter of thoughts and emotions. The book and film chronicle the rovings of a group of Americans who’ve dropped out of society and live a transient lifestyle out of their own vehicles. Most of them are seniors, living what ought to be retirement years as a kind of combination permanent camping trip and cycle of menial migrant labor. It would be easy to make the story strictly economic and socio-political, and no doubt many critics and other commentators are spinning it that way. That is certainly an important aspect of this story. The particular phenomenon Nomadland explores seems to have sprung up after the Great Recession of 2008, much like the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath hit the road during the Great Depression of the ’30s. Lacking a safety net, these people do what they gotta do to live another day. McDormand’s character Fern is a widow from the town of Empire, Nevada, which was literally wiped off the map when its one industry, a gypsum mine, ceased operations. There is a strong element of docudrama to the film: Zhao, cast and crew literally went on the road among a bunch of these Nomads, and several of them are in the film, playing versions of themselves. This is a technique Zhao had employed in her two previous films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), both of which were shot with non-actors among the Lakota Sioux. And cleaving close to that approach, other than McDormand, the professional actors in the film like David Strathairn and Peter Spears, play characters named Dave and Pete.
But McDormand and Zhao, being artists, give us something richer than a mere spotlight on the challenges some people face. If the plight of these characters were only economic, millions more would be on the road in RVs and vans at the moment. This film is a portrait of the kind of stubbornly independent people who prefer self-sufficiency and a bit of adventure to living on a fixed income among America’s monotonous penned herd. Granted, some may not have made this choice if there had been other options. But others would rather endure anything than help or handouts or a debt to the masses of people they’d rather keep their distance from. McDormand has played many such women over the years. Her lively, thoughtful face keeps the film humming, in scene after scene where she is flying solo, and with no spoken dialogue. Zhao does a masterful job of positing the wanderers in this story within a cultural tradition. Such people are not new. One thinks of medieval caravans, the Roma, the Travelers, and especially, given the gorgeous western desert backdrop in which this film was shot, American pioneers. (And let us not forget showfolk and vaudevillians!) And because most of the characters are Boomers, one is also reminded of more recent, self-conscious iterations of this spirit, like Kerouac’s On the Road, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and hippie seekers of all kinds from the ’60s to the present day. Through McDormand’s eyes, we frequently experience the existential satisfaction of the beauty of nature. One hesitates to call it joy or pleasure. Her character, like many in this story, is deeply grieving the loss of a loved one. One would be hard pressed to sort out the degree to which she is depressed or simply ornery and eccentric. But something possesses her to move through the landscape — to KEEP moving.
Believe it or not, Nomadland has a plot. It’s a tiny one. The arc of it reminded me a lot of many of those small, intimate, hyper-realistic New Hollywood movies of the early ’70s. Basically, Fern is offered the choice to settle down and live a less precarious lifestyle with someone who has grown to be a valued friend. The scenes where we are plunged back into civilization — the suburbs, blecch! — are a stark, radical shift, visually and tonally, evidence of Zhao’s firm directorial hand. Fern makes her choice, a brave one, one few of us would make. That is the climax, and in the context of her journey, it is a momentous one.
In the end, I don’t want to downplay the economic reality that informs the narrative. Because the other literary tradition Nomadland unavoidably evokes is the dystopian science fiction of Mad Max. Many’s the time over the last few years (the last year, in particular) when I’ve wondered if survivalism wasn’t fated to be our universal future, whether we choose it or not. In light of that, you might also want to watch Nomadland as an instructional “How To” video.
For another excellent (very different) take on Nomadland, I reccomend John Devore’s, here.