My first two thoughts after seeing the new film Nomadland: 1. Frances McDormand is a national treasure 2. Context played a role in my reaction to the film.
I’ll start with context. Two days after the electricity came back on in my little patch of polar-vortexed Texas, I watched Nomadland on Hulu with a friend who’s also a neighbor. Texas, the energy capital of the U.S., had thrown my family and hers and millions of other residents into a frigid abyss of cold and dark, all because state officials didn’t heed the many warnings that power grids (and the equipment that fuels them) need to be winterized/protected in the event of a really extreme weather event. Would it surprise you to learn that extreme temps, major black-outs, and near-meltdowns are part of the state’s recent history?
While Nomadland is also a story birthed in hardship, it’s a beautiful film.
NOMADLAND begins in Empire, Nebraska, shortly after U.S. Gypsum closed its plant and gypsum mine in January 2011, after 88 years in business. Demand for sheetrock was down, following the Financial Crisis/Recession that began in 2008. Fern (Frances McDormand) is left “houseless,” not homeless, she tells a friend’s granddaughter, a girl she once tutored. Fern’s new home is an old van she names “Vanguard.” The first job she can find post-U.S. Gypsum is at a nearby Amazon fulfillment center that hires armies of temporary workers for the holiday season. Not one to pity herself, she’s pleasant to others and “likes to work”, but moments of grief slip through when she’s alone.
For decades, Empire was home to Fern and her husband Bo. He loved his job at the plant; she liked her job in Human Resources. Mostly they loved sitting outside after work, where the view behind their house was nothing but the mountains in the distance and the empty landscape in between. Bo died; then the plant shut down.
This is not a film about how capitalism or the government or ‘the system’ abandoned Fern and others like her. It’s bigger than that. (I’m smaller than that, because that’s what was foremost on my mind due to the Texas black-out.) It’s about ordinary people showing extraordinary resilience and a spirit of adventure in the midst of hardship. It’s about the power of human connection, even among wanderers who may never cross paths again. It’s about the majesty of nature, as witnessed by those forced to endure and thrive in its midst.
At Amazon, Fern makes a new friend, Linda May, a 60-ish woman like herself, who shares what she’s learned about the nomad life. Soon Fern travels to Arizona to work with Linda May sweeping floors and scrubbing toilets at an R.V. Park and to attend the annual gathering & festival run by Bob Wells, a kind-hearted mentor to a legion of nomads. There, through an acquaintance, she learns of work as a short-order cook at a mall-like store near the Badlands in South Dakota. The film, like her life, plays out in short vignettes, and the thread that pulls us through to the end is a question mark. What’s keeping Fern from living a more traditional life, particularly after we learn she does have another option or two?
The film was loosely based on a 2017 non-fiction book of the same title, written by the journalist Jessica Bruder. Fern is a made-up character, but some of the characters in the film—Linda May, Bob Wells, and a woman with terminal cancer named Swankie—are real people who were in the book. Using real people to act in her films is a hallmark of the young director, Chloé Zhao, who made a big splash with her second feature film, The Rider, released in 2018. (It, too, is a beautiful film which I highly recommend.)
I haven’t read Bruder’s book, but I understand it focuses more on the Great Recession as the driving force behind the growing number of middled-aged and older Americans who turned to a nomad existence. Out-of-work or forced out of their homes by a mortgage crisis they didn’t create, they were caught in the squeeze between bad governance and bad luck, with a safety net full of holes.
For all its beauty, those parts of the book that are largely unspoken in the film are what I saw—what I felt—as I watched Nomadland.
In the 2008 Financial Crisis, it was the securities industry, mortgage lenders, rating agencies and government that failed Americans. In February 2021 during the polar vortex, it was inaction by state officials and the Texas power industry that failed Texans. Both were avoidable disasters.
But I can speak to one American treasure, and that’s Frances McDormand. She optioned the book Nomadland so she could make a movie about it. She’s won two Best Actress Oscars, for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Billings, Missouri; plus, a Tony and an Emmy for other starring roles. As Fern, she’s totally believable, conveying a world of emotion with her facial expressions. When she won the Oscar for Fargo in 1997, she hired a publicist and told him to turn down almost all press opportunities for the next ten years. “It gave me a mystery back to who I was,” she recently told E News. “I could take an audience to a place where someone who sold watches or perfume and magazines couldn’t.”