Review: ‘Nomadland,’ starring Frances McDormand

December 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Nomadland”

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2012 and 2013 in various parts of the United States (mainly the West Coast and Midwest), the dramatic film “Nomadland” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow, who lives in her van by choice and makes a living doing temporary jobs, leads a nomadic existence and is unapologetic about this lifestyle choice to people who don’t approve.

Culture Audience: “Nomadland” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted realistic character studies about people who live on the fringes of society and are often overlooked by mainstream media.

Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in “Nomadland” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Nomadland” is a great American film that represents people who haven’t achieved the great American Dream in the traditional sense but are surviving on their own terms. It’s a drama about a culture that’s rarely seen in a narrative film: People who are not completely homeless but who choose to live in a motor vehicle and travel to find work, wherever and whenever they can. They don’t want anyone’s pity. They just want the respect to live their lives non-traditionally.

And the fact that this story centers on a middle-aged widow with no children makes it even more unusual but no less impactful, because she doesn’t fit the usual profile of nomadic people who get movies made about them. She’s an American refugee in her own country, because the city that she lived and worked in for several years was economically devastated and shut down, so she’s been forced to find a life elsewhere as a nomad.

Written, directed and edited by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving in America in the 21st Century.” As such, most of the film’s cast members are real-life nomads (whose last names are not revealed in the cast credits), which give the movie a level of authenticity that can’t be duplicated by a cast filled with professional actors. Zhao’s masterful cinematic version of the story also makes the sweeping landscapes of the open road as of much a character as the story’s protagonist: Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a no-nonsense, self-sufficient widow who is still recovering from the grief of losing her husband after 32 years of marriage.

Fern used to live in the very small town of Empire, Nevada, which had a population of 217 people in the 2010 census. In real life, Empire suffered from an irrecoverable loss on January 23, 2011, when the United States Gypsum mining plant (the rural town’s main employer) shut down, due to reduced demand for sheetrock. By July 2011, Empire’s zip code (89405) was discontinued. This information is stated in the movie’s prologue.

Fern’s husband died around the same time that Empire became a ghost town. And so, with nothing to keep her in Empire, this widow has been on her own, living in her van, and trying to find enough work to keep herself financially afloat. The movie’s story takes place over the course of about 12 to 14 months, beginning during the year-end holiday season in 2012. Fern reports to work at an Amazon warehouse, where she has signed on for temporary work as a package processor, since the company has increased demand for workers during this holiday season.

Fern is friendly but emotionally elusive. She’s good at making small talk and bonding with passing acquaintances, but she’s closed-off when it comes to revealing her true inner feelings and making long-lasting close friendships. Throughout the film, there are glimpses of her emotional turmoil, but she never lets anything get her too depressed. She can’t afford to be depressed. She has to keep going for survival.

Fern is not old enough to retire, but she’s too old to be considered a viable candidate for a lot of jobs that require a lot of strenuous physical activity. Even if Fern were at retirement age, she can’t afford to retire. She and her husband had no children (apparently by choice, since Fern expresses no regrets about not having kids) and whatever savings they might have had is long gone.

She’s too proud to ask for financial assistance in most situations. If she does ask to borrow money from someone she knows (which happens a few times in the movie), it’s only as a last resort. And it’s clear that she finds it very difficult to ask anyone for money, because it makes her feel worthless. She always considers the money that she asks for to be a loan, not a gift or a handout. She promises to pay back the money, and you get the feeling that she means it. 

The closest thing that Fern has to a best friend is a woman about 10 years older than she is named Linda May (played by a real-life nomad named Linda May), who helped Fern get the temporary job at Amazon. After this temp job is completed, Fern decides she kind of likes the city and goes to an employment agency to try to find work so she can stay longer in the city.

The female agency employee who assists Fern warns her that there’s almost no additional work in the area this time of year. The agency employee is correct. Fern can’t find another job there, so she has to move on to a place where she can find work. And the work that she finds is usually temporary. This a pattern that repeats itself for much of the story, because people without a permanent address have a much harder time finding a permanent job.

“Nomadland” was filmed in Nevada, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona and California. None of the cities where Fern ends up is ever named, because the names of the cities don’t really matter. This movie is all about Fern’s experiences and the people she meets along the way in this particular time period in her life. Because the movie begins and ends during the winter months, there are multiple scenes where Fern has to deal with sleeping in her van during freezing weather.

A few times, some people who come across Fern express concern that she’s living in a van all by herself in freezing temperatures. Having a portable heater doesn’t really help and can sometimes be dangerous in an enclosed automobile, if the heater is kept on for a long period of time. Sometimes Fern stays at camping sites and RV parks (which usually cost money), while other times, she sleeps somewhere for free in a parking lot or out in a deserted area where she thinks she won’t be bothered. She refuses to stay at homeless shelters.

Linda May tells Fern about a nomad community gathering called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR), led by a charismatic man named Bob Wells (who portrays himself), who can best be described as someone who looks like a flannel-wearing Santa Claus. RTR is based in Quartzsite, Arizona, and it’s a support system geared mainly to nomads who are in desperate need of help. Fern looks at an online video of Bob speaking (she has her phone for Internet access) and politely tells Linda May that she’s not interested in going to the next RTR gathering.

But at some point, Fern changes her mind when she’s running very low on money. And she finds that RTR is a community of nomads who are a lot like she is: Over the age of 60, barely getting by financially, but loving life on the road. In the first meeting that she experiences with Bob, he talks about how people in their age group are a lot like work horses that are considered too old to be useful and are put out to pasture. Bob tells them to think of RTR as being like work horses who look out for each other. Fern likes what she hears, so she decides to stay.

Later, when Fern has a one-on-one meeting with Bob, he tells her: “I think you’ve come to the right place to find an answer. I think communing with nature and a real, true community and tribe will make all the difference for you.” Fern replies, “I hope so.”

The RTR gathering is almost like an informal seminar, because it includes instructions and advice on living in a vehicle. It also has swap meets for many of the attendees to trade or give away items. It’s at one of the swap meets that Fern meets Dave (played by David Strathairn), a tall and bearded gentleman who’s around her age or slightly older, and he seems as if he’s immediately attracted to Fern. She plays it cool though, and they talk about their can openers before going their separate ways.

Later, Fern and Dave see each other again at a social gathering and he asks her to dance. She warms up to him a little and he basically tells her that he’s available, but she still gives him the impression that she’s not interested in dating him. Although Fern doesn’t say it out loud, it’s pretty obvious that she’s still grieving over the loss of her husband, whom she speaks fondly of later in the story when she opens up to someone about him.

Although Fern considers her to be independent, there are scenes in the movie where she still shows some naïveté about basic things when it comes to looking out for her safety as a road traveler. For example, Fern’s tendency to be a loner means that she often parks in areas that are too isolated and would be disastrous if she needed help from someone nearby. When she sleeps in her car during the cold winter months, she has a thick blanket and layered clothing, but she doesn’t think of ways to better protect herself from getting sick or frost-bitten.

And she’s not as skilled in auto mechanics as she should be. One day, Fern finds that her parked car has a flat tire, but she does not have a spare tire. But even if she did, Fern doesn’t know how to change a tire. Luckily, another nomad whom she knows named Swankie (played by real-life nomad named Charlene Swankie) is parked nearby and can help her.

Fern asks Swankie to drive her to the nearest gas station to get help and a spare tire. Swankie mildly scolds Fern and tells her that it’s time for her to learn how to change a tire and that she should always have a spare tire. During a heart-to-heart conversation in Ruth’s van, Swankie tells her that she will soon turn 75, she was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she now has only seven or eight months to live. Swankie doesn’t want to go through cancer treatment. Instead, she wants to spend her last days on Earth doing things she always wanted to do, like go to Alaska.

Swankie tells Fern that she learned this lesson after she watch a close friend die from a terminal illness and how this friend had a boat parked at his home that he never got to use because he kept putting it off until he had more time. Swankie also opens up about the suicidal thoughts that she had when she found out that she had cancer. Swankie says she even read Jack Kevorkian’s controversial “Final Exit” book to get ideas, but she changed her mind about killing herself because she didn’t want to leave behind her two dogs. In turn, Fern reveals some of the feelings that she went through when her husband was dying of a terminal illness. It’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

During the course of the film, Fern takes different temporary jobs, including working as a camp host. She encounters Dave (who sometimes works as a fossil guide) at different times during the story and they become closer. She ends up meeting Dave’s musician son James (Tay Strathairn) and other members of Dave’s family. Fern also spends time with her married sister, who’s led a much more traditional and conservative life than Fern has. Viewers will get more insight into Fern’s family background during this crucial scene.

People should not expect a typical road-trip movie in “Nomadland.” Most road-trip movies want to stuff the plot with a lot of mishaps or high-octane action, but “Nomad” often focuses on the mundane but realistic everyday activities of Fern at work and in her free time. She takes pleasure in simple things, as demonstrated in a scene where Fern and Linda May pretend they’re at a spa and put tissues on their faces and cucumbers over their eyes.

And it’s a very intimate look at Fern life—maybe too intimate for some viewers, because there’s a scene of her urinating out in the desert and a scene of her defecating in a bucket in her van. (For people easily offended by bodily functions depicted on screen, you’ve been warned.) The defecation scene is not so graphic that viewers see the end results, but it’s explicit enough where people might find out more about Fern’s intestinal activities than they care to know. There’s also a full-frontal nude scene of Fern floating on water as she takes a relaxing dip in a lake.

These scenes are meant to give this drama a documentary feel, especially when Fern is alone. McDormand is so talented that she doesn’t need to speak in any solitary scenes, because her facial expressions say a lot more than what many scripted lines would say. The cinematography from Joshua James Richards gives emotional resonance to the seasons and terrain that Fern experiences during her journey. It’s during the freezing winter months that viewers get the most impactful sense of Fern’s isolation, because even she doesn’t know if she’s putting herself in a situation where she could wake up with frostbite or her van too buried in snow to drive.

But what “Nomadland” captures best is the reality that for nomads like Fern, the only thing constant is change. People come and go out of each other’s lives. Home means not having a building as a permanent place to live. There’s a pivotal scene in the movie were Fern has to make a choice to live a comfortable and more stable life in a regular house or keep living her more difficult and unstable life on the road. The choice she makes tells viewers what they need to know about what Fern’s definition of “freedom” is and what she might or might not be willing to give up to have that freedom.

Searchlight Pictures released “Nomadland” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 4, 2020. The movie is set for a release in select IMAX theaters in the U.S. on January 29, 2021. “Nomadland” goes into wider release in U.S. cinemas and debuts on Hulu on February 19, 2021.