Empire, Nevada, was once a company town for the United States Gypsum Corporation. Workers toiled in the mine and lived with their families in tract houses owned by USG. The mine and the town closed in 2011, essentially wiping Empire off the map. (The town even lost its zip code.) Most of the people left. When the film, Nomadland opens, we see Fern, whose husband worked for USG and died of cancer, going through their belongings in a storage facility, selecting the few things she will take with her. Packing up her van, which she names “Vanguard,” she hits the open road.
Fern (Frances McDormand) becomes part of a growing demographic of older Americans who, having lost their jobs and their homes, live in their vehicles and travel the country, taking whatever work they can find. In the midst of the pandemic, we hear stories of retirees buying these homes on wheels to explore parts of the country they’ve never seen. The group we see in Nomadland, however, does not have the luxury of 401ks to finance their adventures. Rather, like sharks, they have to keep moving to live.
Nomadland, directed and written by Chloé Zhao, captures the essence of this nomadic existence in all its sadness and joy. As Fern explains to a young person she meets in a store, “I’m not homeless; I’m just houseless.” For Fern, Vanguard is more than transportation. When it breaks down and a mechanic advises her to buy another van, she tells him, “I can’t do that. I live in there. It’s my home.” Thanks to cinematographer Joshua James Richards, we are inside that van with Fern for much of the film. At times it’s claustrophobic, but also intimate as she uses what little equipment and supplies she owns to take care of basic needs.
Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s bestseller, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao cast as stars and extras many of the actual people featured in the book. While the book’s central focus is Linda May, Zhao made the decision to create Fern, a fictional character who would serve as both a participant and observer. McDormand, who in 2017 optioned the rights to the book along with producer Peter Spears, delivers another compelling performance as Fern. Although she is recognizable, having won two Oscars, numerous other awards, and is identified with iconic characters like Fargo’s Chief Marge Gunderson, she still manages to melt into each role she takes on. But what McDormand does in this film is listen, really listen, to everyone she meets. Her openness, maintaining direct eye contact and sharing what little she has, invites others to open up, even as she shares few details about herself.
Fern is a sympathetic character because she doesn’t invite sympathy. She makes it clear that this is the life she’s chosen and meets every challenge with a can-do spirit. (Fern, like so many of the other women in the film, symbolizes St. Therese of Lisieux’s motto – “To do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”) When cleaning bathrooms with Linda May, Fern doesn’t shy away from washing walls or wiping down toilets. We watch her rotate through a hodgepodge of jobs dictated, for the most part, by the seasons. During the holidays, she’s packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, during harvest, rounding up beets in Nebraska, and in the summer, checking in tourists at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Always with a smile and, on many occasions, with a sense of wonder. The Western states Fern travels through produce breathtaking vistas, beautifully captured by Richards.
There’s a great deal of camaraderie among those who have embraced this lifestyle. There are occasional rallies, the largest one the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous near Quartzsize, Arizona, often held in the winter. The gathering usually attracts upwards of 10,000 people, revealing the size of this movement. For the film, a few hundred gather to hear Bob Wells give what amounts to a pep talk peppered with helpful information. (Wells, who manages a website about RV living, confesses to Fern in the film that his son chose death by suicide.)
As Dave, David Strathairn crosses paths several times with Fern. There’s never any physical contact, although it’s clear Dave would like a relationship to develop. When Dave receives news he’s about to become a grandfather, Fern encourages him to go to his son. By the time Fern takes Dave up on his invitation to visit, he’s made the decision to leave the road and stay with his family.
Will Fern – or, for that matter, any of the other women – do the same? Swankie, playing herself, confesses that she’s dying of cancer, but wants to live out her remaining time on the road. Fern talks warmly about her husband and their life in Empire, so there was a time when living in one place was a happy time. And when she goes back to Empire to walk through what was once her house, her love and loss are palatable. But her husband and that community that once surrounded them is gone. Her new life is now on the road and Vanguard her home.
While we come away admiring the spirit of these men and women, we can’t help but look at an economic system that has let so many people down forcing them to make the best of this itinerant lifestyle. Perhaps Fern, Linda May, Swankie and others would voluntarily choose a life on the road. One woman attending RTR declares that she made the choice to travel the country in an RV after seeing a friend die with a boat in his driveway that he never sailed. Most of the people we see in the film, however, didn’t choose this lifestyle, but fell into it for survival.
Nomadland opened in theaters on February 19 and is available to stream on Hulu.
Top photo: Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.