The script for “Nomadland” is based on a 2017 book by journalist Jessica Bruder. Bruder’s reporting introduced readers to a fascinating and, for me, completely unknown world where people in their 50s and 60s travel the country in vans or campers in search of itinerant work.
These are the forgotten victims of the 2008 financial crisis—middle class casualties in a war fought so far above their heads, it can be easy to forget that their own homes were the weapons used to wage it. Theirs is a distinctly internal kind of migration, with mostly solitary lives spent pinging between low-wage and often grueling jobs. We can all recognize this existence as emblematic of disenfranchised laborers across America, but comparisons to the foreign citizens who risk our borders only go so far. The American-born migrants in Bruder’s book have a real sense of community if they choose it, despite their closely held loner bona fides as individuals. This is the true jumping off point for the movie.
“Nomadland” the film, available for streaming now on Hulu, centers on Fern. She’s a widowed “houseless” person who sells what little she has left to head west into opportunity and simplicity. Played beautifully by Frances McDormand, Fern asks only the most basic things of her van and her life: Keep me warm. Keep me fed. We see her working in an Amazon fulfilment center, a beet processing plant, a tourist restaurant and as a camp host tending the needs of other perhaps less committed travelers. She does each of the jobs with a dogged professionalism that highlights just how much she is choosing to be where she is. It’s an amazing performance, and I’m not sure who could have pulled it off better than McDormand. She exudes a calm comfort during Fern’s patchwork journey and faces the hard lessons of nomad living with perhaps the most perfectly calibrated half-smile in the business. Fern’s emotional range is very narrow throughout most of the plot, but the subtlety McDormand still manages to project confirms her as one of our best living actors.
Director Chloé Zhao chose to place the character of Fern in a highly authentic space. She did so by putting real-life nomads in Fern’s cohort and depicting the American West in a way only those of us who live out here can truly appreciate. Distance and time behave differently in the West. Just look at the theatrical release poster of Fern sitting in her lawn chair with those sunset pink mountains in the background and you’ll see what I mean. This is the land of patience. Clocks and maps need not apply. And the cinematography and editing of “Nomadland” capture this perfectly throughout.
Zhao’s other important choice was to fill her cast will actual van dwellers. It’s a gamble, asking regular people to present fictionalized versions of themselves without pulling the viewer out of the experience. Swankie and Linda May and Bob are all endearingly earnest in “Nomadland.” I’m reminded though of “Act of Valor” from 2012, in which real Navy Seals played alongside the actors. That movie had multiple problems, but I cannot deny that the on-screen performance disparity was the most glaring. I know… it’s completely unfair, comparing “Nomadland” to “Act of Valor.” I just wish the desire for genuine voices didn’t put wonderful people at such a disadvantage when compared to all the Hollywood polish around them.
Any misstep “Nomadland” makes is made in service to an ideal I can appreciate. Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand have given us a deep, intimate look into a part of our society we should all understand better. The Academy is watching, and you should too.