Frances McDormand as Fern is a study in profound loneliness, a loneliness at once caused and chosen, both a product of circumstances and a proclivity, a choice. She’s a person of few words, a listener of minimal response. She enjoys companionship—but just a little. Her loneliness is nestled in the personality of a loner, an eccentric.
Fern is a middle-aged woman who has lost everything important to her: husband, meaningful work (in Human Resources and as a substitute teacher), and the town itself, along with house and friends. After the 88-year-old gypsum plant closed, Empire, Nevada collapsed, deprived even of its zip code.
Linda May, an Amazon co-worker, tells Fern about RTR (“Rubber Tramp Rendezvous”), a rogue RV camp for nomads in the Badlands, and so, after her seasonal Amazon work ends at Christmas and the local employment office tells her there’s not much for her in Empire, Fern sets out on a kind of road trip. Although she will explain that she’s not “homeless” but “houseless,” her van—lovingly and intricately customized—is for her both house and home.
Chinese director Chloé Zhao has adapted Jessica Bruder’s 2017 eponymous non-fiction book by using the people Bruder met and wrote about as she joined these RV-dwelling migrants after the Great Recession. The result is a hybrid: fiction and documentary, professional actors and unprofessional but real testimonials.
Strangely, the actor’s character—McDormand’s Fern—seems the more authentic. Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells and the others—who play themselves—are shown in brief biographical and self-help statements for which Fern is the empathetic observer, ready with a half-smile of affirmation but seldom with her own story or personal thoughts. When the van caravan moves on, she doesn’t. She meets up with some of them now and then, but she clearly wants to be on her own, physically and emotionally.
At least two of the “nomads” Fern meets present to her overt critiques of capitalism’s failure to supply adequate jobs and wages for those willing to work hard. And yet, “Nomadland” doesn’t dwell on this point. Zhao shows Fern in a variety of limited, hourly positions—from the Amazon distribution center to cleaning an RV camp to working the kitchen at South Dakota’s Wall Drug Store to beet harvesting—but does not show her complaining or breaking under the strain. “I like to work,” she tells the unemployment officer.
When the opportunity to live in a house arises—whether that of a former student’s parent or her estranged sister—she declines.
When the opportunity to live in a house arises—whether that of a former student’s parent or her estranged sister—she declines. She also flees from a relationship proffered by another migrant she meets on the road, Dave (the only other role by a professional actor, David Strathairn). Nice (and harmless) enough, but flaccid and weak, he hardly seems up to Fern. The film explores the tension between Fern’s preference for autonomy and her sentimental memories of family and community—illustrated by her fondly gazing at old family photos—but it makes clear where her priorities lie. Though tempted by Dave’s comfortable life (if somewhat cloying—Dave and his son playing four-hand piano), she escapes a cozy bedroom and a Rockwell-like Thanksgiving dinner with Dave’s newly re-found family to sleep in her van and quietly leave the next morning.
The closest we come to Fern’s inner being is when she shows great joy at being by herself in wide-open, even desolate spaces, whether walking out the back of her now-abandoned tract house in Empire, or among rock labyrinths in the Badlands, or along the wave-swept cliffs of the wild Pacific Coast. And the closest she comes to articulating the nostalgic side of her emotional state is explaining to Wells (the guru of RTR) that to leave Empire is to have her husband’s memory disappear.
This is by any standard a peculiar film, combining as it does the fictional with the real, and featuring a self-contained protagonist who is more defined by what she withholds than what she offers.
This is by any standard a peculiar film, combining as it does the fictional with the real, and featuring a self-contained protagonist who is more defined by what she withholds than what she offers. While the documentary story can seem awkward and oddly artificial, the fictional story is powerful and McDormand is magnificent: intense yet withdrawn, at the center of the film yet curiously on the fringe of events and even feelings. On that level, “Nomadland” works.
Nomadland – ★★★ (out of 4 stars)
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells
Other Awards: Best Motion Picture and Best Director, Golden Globes; 165 other wins, and 122 other nominations
Runtime: 107 minutes
Availability: Streaming only on Hulu; for future availability, see JustWatch here.