Lying somewhere between anguish and admiration, “Nomadland” couches itself as a sober tour d’horizon of the contemporary American condition and enduring American individualism. The finished product is earnestly conceived and expertly fashioned, examining the castoffs of capitalism and touching the raw nerve of economic despair in America’s heartland. But like the nomads it spotlights, where the film thematically starts is not where it ends up.
The film’s framing device is the real-life 2011 closing of the U.S. Gypsum factory in Empire, Nevada, a company town that quickly became a ghost town after the plant closed. Its hundreds of inhabitants had to move away; even the town’s zip code was discontinued.
One of Empire’s denizens was Fern (Frances McDormand), who worked for US Gypsum for years alongside her husband until his recent death. Fern now lives out of her dilapidated van, barely subsisting off of seasonal work at an area Amazon fulfillment center.
The aching backdrop of Fern’s personal loss is starkly juxtaposed against the mechanized, antiseptic composition of her new work ecosystem. Fern has gone from a life in which family is stitched into the fabric of work to a hive of transient, interchangeable worker bees.
A friend and coworker named Linda May — playing herself — suggests that Fern follow her to Arizona to live in a roadside vehicle community inhabited by fellow “nomads,” people seemingly left destitute by personal and/or professional travails. Organized by Bob Wells (also playing himself), the desert rendezvous is a commune for society’s outcasts and in the best sense a throwback to the pioneering past of the American West.
It is there that Fern meets David (actor David Strathairn), a kindly vagabond who takes a shine to Fern. Fern has taken a job at a nearby RV park, while David is a part-time ranger at the Badlands National Park. Their burgeoning friendship suffers a setback when Fern excoriates David over an innocent mistake. Fern also befriends Swankie (another real-life nomad playing herself), who teaches Fern some hard lessons about survival, self-sufficiency, and making sure you properly maintain your van.
“Nomadland” then leans into its nomadic construct. After the ailing Swankie leaves the commune for final grand trip, Fern unexpectedly reconnects with David and the two are suddenly shown working restaurant jobs in Wall Drug in South Dakota. When David’s son tracks down his father and lures him back home, Fern takes another job at a beet farm before her van breaks down. Unable to afford the repairs — and both unable and unwilling to buy another one — Fern turns to her comfortably middle-class sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) for assistance. It is this segment that peels back the layers of Fern, as we discover that she has long been a rolling stone who left her childhood family to follow her love west on an adventurous future in Arizona. Suddenly, the life that has befallen Fern is recast as a continuum of her innate, longtime character.
That reconfiguration extends to the remainder of “Nomadland,” a film that illuminates the victimization of its subjects while taking great pains to avoid branding them as victims. Perhaps this is what happens when filmmakers become attached to the actual people whose story they are telling. Regardless, the screenplay by the terrific writer-director Chloé Zhao develops a glaring internal conflict, as the nomadic existence of Fern and friends becomes less the sole consequence of forced misfortune and more the latest chapter in a lifelong predilection. Indeed, when Fern is twice afforded off-ramps from her hardship — invitations by Dolly and later David to live with each in comfort — Fern abruptly rebuffs their overtures in favor of the road.
“Nomadland” concludes back at the derelict remains of Empire, a metaphorical and etymological allusion to the film’s broader thematic promise. But the intervening journey has taken Fern, and with her the film’s audience, to a much different and less audacious destination.
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