‘Nomadland’ is a pensive portrait of economic and social dislocation

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

It’s unclear what critics mean when they say Nomadland is a film that mingles joy and sorrow. There is very little of the former and much of the latter — watching it with closed captioning, it’s striking how often the phrase “pensive piano music” shows up on the bottom of the screen. Star Frances McDormand spends the vast majority of the runtime with a 1,000-yard stare into the blasted void of a desert. Barring that, she’s toiling in halogen-lit Amazon “fulfillment” centers or scraping grease off a grill at Wall Drug — all the while exuding so much weariness and sorrow that it takes a person of normal fortitude more than one go at viewing it. 

People like to think that they understand movies; that they’re entertainment. Nomadland is exhausting in the ways that some people might call art, but which a more considered opinion might describe as depression porn. Critics, of course, aren’t poor, so they don’t know that Nomadland is depressing. They see some kind of Old West rumination on love, loss and yearning.

A still frame of Nomadland’s star, Frances McDormand. Courtesy photo.

For sure, there are elements of that, but the most maddening aspect of Nomadland is the muddled sense that 60-somethings are suddenly realizing the American dream is bogus. By now anyone with brains should know that the American dream has taken a beating in the past 20 or so years, and precious few people who were “coming up” during that time period have found it possible to access the kind of financial opportunity and stability enjoyed by their elders. 

In the meantime, smart publications have exhaustively excavated the systematic hollowing out of life in this country, heisted by the hoarding that has gone on with increasing rapidity since the turn of the 21st century — hoarding of wealth, hoarding of land, hoarding of opportunity. 

In case anyone is unaware, there is a crushing affordability crisis in the United States right now, with at least an entire generation completely unable to invest in a home of their own. That rootless sense of dread and the foreclosure of participation in the economic life of the country animates Nomadland, and as a person born in the tail end of Gen X, it’s really hard to see any glimmer of the romance of hitting the road to live in a van.

That’s not to suggest that Nomadland is trafficking in romance — set in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse (which could just as well be today), our heroine, Fern, played by McDormand, is a casualty of the system. When the gypsum plant in her community of Empire, Nev., shuts down the whole town disappears almost overnight. At the same time, her husband dies, leaving her with precious little to hold her in one place for long.

Thus begins her nomadic life, piloting a retrofitted van she names Vanguard. Along the way we meet the winsome, unmoored masses who inhabit the ghostly, lonely desertscapes of the Intermountain West and places like North Dakota. It’s a gorgeous, windy setting evocative of the nothingness left in the wake of post-post industrial capitalism.

Fern keeps mostly to herself, picking up odd jobs here and there, eating her meals in a succession of deserted, depressing fast food diners. Human connections come and go with a light touch — there is camaraderie, but it’s spiked with a shared sense of bereavement for jobs, for homes, for family.

If Fern finds any kind of solace it’s in clinging to her independence, though the degree to which she is actually “free” is doubtful, as she’s tethered to a seasonal migration of low-paying work, the mechanical vicissitudes of her aging vehicle and, at one point, must even reconnect with her sister — holding her nose for a brief stay in the suburbs in order to get a loan so she can keep moving.

Nomadland rightly earns its mass critical success, including a recent Golden Globe win, but don’t go into it thinking you’ll be treated to a honey-hued portrait of late-middle age self discovery. There’s very little out there but the open road and it’s a lonely place.

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