An exhilarating road trip, despite the plotholes
Film Review: Nomadland (1hr 47mins).
NOMADLAND begins in the quixotically named town of Empire, Nevada, population 65 in the 2021 census. Behind it we see a range of cold, craggy mountains before the even craggier face of Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand fills the screen.
The nearest town, Nixon, is 60 miles away on an Indian reservation. From 1948 to 2011, Empire was a ‘company town,’ owned by the US Gypsum Corporation, with a population of nearly 1,000. The mine and a sheetrock (plaster) factory closed in 2011.
The decline of heavy industry has been bad enough here in the UK. But in America this is an even more shocking level of desolation and dispossession, as the people only lived there – in what seems to be the middle of nowhere – because of the mine.
‘Home is somewhere you take with you,’ a folksy voice tells McDormand, playing Fern, the 61-year-old widow of an Empire miner. She quits her ‘company track-house,’ a prefab backing on to a desert, to take to the highway in a small white van she calls ‘Vanguard,’ with a few keepsakes from her previous life.
She joins a tribe of ageing American nomads, crossing the plains like their ancestors, but this time without any clear idea of where they aim to go. It seems they just want to get away from everything to do with the past, and keep moving.
A particularly appealing aspect of the film is that many characters are portrayed by untrained actors playing themselves, such as Bob Wells, the backwoods bearded leader of the convoy, in real life a traveller, famous for YouTube videos about ‘cheap RV living.’
There is Charlene Swankie, ‘An experience kayaker’ who in the film has terminal cancer, on her way to Alaska to kill herself. Audiences were glad to see her looking quite healthy at the Oscar ceremony when the film swept the board for awards.
Most popular has been Linda May, hitting the road aged 67, a penniless grandmother who befriends Fern.
‘Dave,’ played by David Strathairn, 72, an Oscar-nominated professional actor, becomes attracted to Fern, after they bond over a box of can openers. We see her spending Christmas alone in her cramped van, with a bit of tinsel in her scraggy hair.
There is a problem coping with the cold and sanitation. ‘You’ve got to learn to deal with your own shit,’ someone advises, showing her fellow travellers some two-gallon buckets. We later see Fern using one and relieving herself by a roadside.
The materiality of the film is fascinating; we see rough fabrics, gadgets, cigarettes, broken china, and ravaged faces, against the subtext of the great American wilderness. ‘Swankie’ says she would have been happy to die the day she first saw the beauty of nature in a national park.
Half an hour in, one starts to wonder; is this journalism, or a nature documentary? It’s interesting and pleasant to watch, but there’s no dramatic tension. None of the characters seems to want anything in particular, there is no quest among them.
Are we seeing something in the nature of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, a response to dire poverty, or his more cosy, optimistic, 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley: In Search of America?
Bishop Richard Harries on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, said he’d seen the film and was puzzled by Fern’s ‘otherness.’ He couldn’t understand her motives or why she needed to be always on the move.
It’s also puzzling that despite their poor teeth, white beards and scuzzy hair, none of the characters is actually destitute. When Dave gets diverticulitis, he immediately receives abdominal surgery, unlike almost 30million Americans who have no insurance and cannot pay for basic hospital procedures.
When Fern’s van breaks down, her sister gives her hundreds of dollars to get it fixed. These are not redneck Trump supporters, they are educated, middle-class. Fern hums Greensleeves as she drives. Dave’s grandchildren enjoy a sumptuous family Thanksgiving dinner.
So, who are these travellers? This is not Easy Rider, with its message of hippy freedom on the open road. It seems they are all the baby boomers who grew up in the 1960s and expected a little too much from the world, or at least from American capitalism.
A piece is missing in the narrative which may be due to a failure of nerve by director Chloe Zhao, who adapted the film from the excoriating book Nomadland.
Investigative journalist Jessica Bruder travelled 15,000 miles across America to write it, taking a forensic view of the effects on ordinary people of economic upheaval, unemployment, lost pensions and collapsing house prices. Folk like you or me, driven to work long hours in Amazon warehouses during the winter holidays, or take summer jobs paying ten dollars an hour in national parks.
That troublingly harsh side of American life is unknown to most of us safe in cosy Britain, and Zhao doesn’t show it in Nomadland, merely hints at it. Instead, she focuses on the luridly fascinating particulars of vagabond life, while her characters demonstrate the good ol’ virtues of resilience, solidarity, kindness and thrift needed to get people through.
This road film is really a vehicle for Oscar-winning McDormand, who made such an impact in 2017 as a vengeful mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
That was a risky black comedy full of amusing vignettes. In comparison, this one is as dry as a jack rabbit’s droppings.
McDormand is a master of meaningful pathos and the film avoids the usual American movie tropes of a searing soundtrack and happy ending.
Fern and Dave almost return to domesticity together, but that is avoided in favour of what the New York Times called, ‘A fine Emersonian spirit,’ of adventure. Instead, the ending is more nuanced than most US films provide, dedicated, bleakly to, ‘the ones who had to depart’.
But why did they go? Are Fern’s problems economic or emotional? The film is afraid to tell us.