Dir. Chloe Zhao. Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells
Nomadland is a movie in two halves, both of which I found confusing. In the first half, a woman named Fern (McDormand) gets into a lifestyle called vandwelling, which as far as I can tell is exactly what it should be called, and meets a number of other people who live that way too. For money, these people basically do difficult or undesirable seasonal work for a spell, while maintaining some level of freedom and mobility. As a community, they seem cheerful and engaged with one another, singing songs around campfires, talking about how they got into vandwelling and where they’ve been, even sharing or giving away possessions. McDormand and Strathairn are the only two professional actors we see here; the people who are important to Fern as she gets into this culture are actual vandwellers themselves, Linda May and Charlene Swankie. Bob Wells, the key guru of the movement (“He looks like Santa!” Fern chortles when she sees him in a video for the first time), is there as well. I found myself wondering in the first forty-five to fifty minutes why this was not a documentary. Why did this fictional movie go to such lengths to present actual vandwellers? They are somewhat famous ones at that, for May and Swankie and Wells are part of the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder which gives this movie its title and its basis. Frances McDormand and David Straithairn, no matter how messy her haircut is or how busy his beard, are still Hollywood actors, and indeed McDormand cannot quite escape all the training she’s had. There’s a moment where she recites Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” for a young man she’s met on the road a couple of times, and a voice that we’ve never heard Fern use comes out to beautifully recite the poem in a way that’s just too audiobook to be believed. I was interested in these people, even if the campfire stories were expressed with the sort of shallow perspective that I hadn’t seen in a circle-talk setting like that since a mission trip I went on in high school. The individuals here neve seem all that important. There’s nothing any one of them says that means quite as much as that line of people who don’t have much queued up for chili (vegetarian or carnivore). There is also a sense that the vandwellers are more attuned, closer to nature itself. Zhao finds the Badlands, mountains, redwoods, peaceful little rivers, and so on, and Fern particularly seems most pleased, most at peace, when she’s out in the natural world like that. Swankie goes to Alaska to die, to kayak out and see the swallows coming out of their nests on the cliffs, to pick eggshells out of the turquoise water. It’s a point of emphasis, and a valuable one. There has to be some payoff for diarrhea in a bucket, as Fern gets that one time, and it seems like that payoff is being able to wander around those irregular, beautiful formations, or to float nude downriver. Still, the first half never does answer the question of why Frances McDormand is the one who should be our focal point and gateway into this story when the people whose story this is are not only available but just a van away. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it’s like a weird ache in the back of your throat that you can’t just swallow away.
In the second half, that answer comes through. Linda and Swankie and Bob fade out, though Bob returns to speak a mantra. Fern and David are the key figures now. We have sloughed off our real individuals and have made it to the made-up ones, and what ensues is the expression of a slightly odd relationship. David is interested in Fern; Fern, still grieving for her late husband, keeps him at a distance. David goes home to his son’s house to be someone’s grandfather, which Fern sees firsthand when she goes to visit. This itinerant is, in his dotage, beginning to settle down, compelled for the first time to stay for something. Fern’s van gets into some peril and she has to call up her sister, who is married to a man in real estate; her sister gives her a fat envelope full of cash to continue on her journey, which she likens to that of the pioneers; Fern, she tells a group of friends at a barbecue, is carrying on an American tradition. (The movie doesn’t quite believe that, thank God, because it is a fatally flawed comparison. If they had lived out of those wagons for the rest of their lives, they would have died en route to their goal, which is of course was to open the door to a more affluent life.)
Fern continues moving, eventually ending up back in Empire, Nevada, where her whole life was before. She wanders through the empty gypsum plant, all of it coated with dust and shadow. It turns out that all this time, even though Fern is something of a cipher, a little bit taciturn by nature, she was meant to be someone. After watching this second half, it’s hard not to feel like Nomadland is stealing valor a little bit. Fern spends so much time working on herself here, so much time with David’s family or with her own family or with that empty town she used to be from, that the vandwelling angle which is most captivating fails to feel important any longer. It’s not about a specific, energetic way of life that represents a change for this widowed, childless woman in her sixties; it’s about how we’ve all come to look for America, complete with the kinds of shots which signify that sort of thing. There’s a tremendous purple-yellow contrast in the sky that Zhao and DP Joshua James Richards locate. It reminded me of one that I’ve admired for years, a similar shot from Terrence Malick’s (and if we’re including cinematographers, Nestor Almendros’) Days of Heaven, but compared to the purple-yellow sky of Days of Heaven, this one in Nomadland falls flat. Malick shows an interaction with that sky, a group of men totally in shadow walking into it, preparing a day’s work. It is about the contrast of beauty with hard labor, of something ineffable with something which had better be tangible or else. There is a dialogue occurring there, a wordless one. Zhao’s is a beautiful shot too, but it is simple and static, a postcard from the road, one more wonder to see if you have nothing left to lose.
Zhao’s work, through three films, has been pointed in blending fact and fiction; it appears that she would rather have greater control over a story than documentary ethics would allow, or perhaps she does not care to come to her stories in medias res. (I mention the two possibilities which occurred to me first; for all I know she’s on the record explaining why this kind of stuff actually appeals to her and I am ignorant of it.) This recent article by Pat Mullen does well contextualizing how movies like The Rider and Nomadland belong to a subgenre which blends fiction and documentary, and which is adding more and more entrants; Zhao has a kinship with someone like Robert Greene in this reading, and a movie like The Rider has something in common with Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris. I thought The Rider, in which a rodeo rider named Brady with severe injuries sustained from a rodeo accident plays a rodeo rider named Brady who sustains severe injuries from a rodeo accident, was a strong film. It was much more personal, much more about individual catharsis, and the fact that Brady Jandreau was a non-professional actor himself made the film feel much more honest. Replacing Brady Jandreau with Frances McDormand—a brilliant actress who I could not rate more highly as a performer!—makes Nomadland a basically non-serious movie. There’s that terrific scene in The Rider where Brady works on breaking a horse, a scene that feels real because it was real. We watch Frances McDormand packing up boxes in an Amazon warehouse; is it all that different from watching Danny Aiello make pizza? If McDormand took shifts cleaning bathrooms somewhere as research, then is that really any different than Natalie Portman training in ballet to do the part?
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of the nomads of this vandwelling culture, at least not from what I get out of Nomadland. The movie makes some argument that it’s about resisting a typical life, one in which you never really do what you want to do or see what you want to see. It’s about being willing to have less so you can do more. The reason we don’t make fun of these people, like Albert Brooks does in Lost in America, is because these people are not, were not, well-off. (One woman from the campfire was in “corporate America” for two decades, which is why the sailboat in the driveway story she tells has a kind of Mitch Albom resonance that I’m inured to, but the rest seem to be from relatively humble origins.) I think the movie also makes some argument that these are people who got sold a bill of goods by their country, people who worked hard their whole lives and then got to the end and found out they didn’t even rate six hundred bucks a month from their government. I am sympathetic to that argument as well.
Where Nomadland loses me for good is this strange glorification of poverty that I’ve not seen Zhao dip her toes into before, and which actually reminds me more of one of her fellow Tisch graduates, Sean Baker. (What is it with these people who go to ritzy film schools who feel a need to interpret this kind of poverty through their own understanding? And why can you always tell which film critics went to private school when they’re out here giving four, four and a half, five stars to movies like that?) I think it’s very easy to look at what the Ferns of the world are doing and feel inspired by it. They refuse to quit; they find dignity in living with some kind of freedom; they will not allow bourgeois rules to put them in the ground early. But for a movie which seems awfully mad about U.S. Gypsum bailing on Empire, Nomadland is eerily quiet about how frequently Fern has to go back to an Amazon warehouse for seasonal work, how difficult harvesting beets is in the cold, how incredibly fragile it is to go from minimum wage job to minimum wage job. What Nomadland never does seem to get is that just because you choose to live in your own style of poverty doesn’t mean that there’s something independent about it. This is sort of the point of poverty, as I understand it; the lack of money means that you have less choice about your life, and whatever freedom one has in being able to drive around the West might well be limited by not having the freedom to treat your illnesses. Or, say, the freedom to fix your own van without having to call up your well-off sister to swoop to the rescue. I guess I just sort of wonder what Ken Loach or Vittorio De Sica would have made of this material, and judging from the superiority of a Kes or a Bicycle Thieves in quality and ideas alike, maybe I don’t have to.