Monday June 27, 2022
Movie Review: Nomadland (2020)
In the beginning I thought of “Brokeback Mountain,” then, throughout, of John Mulaney. At the end, I was onto Nietzsche.
I’ll explain the middle part first.
In 2018, John Mulaney hosted the Film Independent Spirit Awards with Nick Kroll. That year, Frances McDormand was up for lead actress for her performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which she would go on to win (her third Spirit award), along with the Oscar (her second), and based on her character in the movie, and a certain vibe McDormand gives off, Mulaney said the following joke: “I bet a fun way to commit suicide would be to cut in front of her in line and then go, ‘Hey lady, re-lax.”
But before he says that, he says she’s great. And before he says that, he says, “Frances McDormand, you are no bullshit.”
That’s what I kept thinking throughout this film. Frances McDormand is great. And Frances McDormand is no bullshit.
Down the road
The movie begins in the place where “Brokeback Mountain” ended, with a survivor smelling and hugging the shirt of a loved one who passed. Fern (McDormand) is picking through the items in a storage locker in Empire, Nevada, a former company town of 700+ people working for US Gypsum, which the company closed in the wake of the Global Financial Meltdown of 2008-09. She’s deciding what to take with her and it’s not much. She takes a plate with a pink pattern around the edges—something you might see on your grandmother’s table. She seems unsure, and alone, and wholly vulnerable.
We’re told about the closing of the company town and the loss of its zip code, and later Fern talks about the death of her husband, and whether she should’ve helped him die sooner, but otherwise we don’t get much background on what they had, what they lost, why she has so little. We just know she’s unsure, alone, living a precarious existence in a van.
She gets a seasonal job at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, boxing up the shit that we all order, then is invited down to a kind of camp in Arizona. It’s run by Bob Wells, who is played by Bob Wells. The movie is based upon Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name, and many people play themselves: Bob is Bob, Linda is Linda, Swankie (who has cancer, and an outré personality) is Swankie. They teach Fern the ropes. They teach her how to survive with not much.
It’s an episodic film, as Fern travels from place to place, with the seasons, to get work and survive. We brace ourselves for something bad happening to her—Hollywood has conditioned us for such things—but the bad thing is just the American economy: not the Financial Meltdown version of it but how it generally works. She gets job at Badlands National Park, and at a Wall Drug in South Dakota, and at a sugar-beet processing plant. She’s making it, sure, but if something goes wrong she’s screwed. And something goes wrong. Her van breaks down and it needs repairs she can’t afford. She has to borrow from her sister’s family. She has to take the money on their terms, which is “You have to listen to what we have to say about you.” But it turns out to be almost a bonding moment. It’s “Why did you leave us? I needed you. I would’ve liked having you around.”
She also begins a friendship with another nomad, Dave (David Strathairn, the only other real actor in the film), and the two wind up staying at his son’s place in California. Dave says he has feelings for her. He also says his son is letting him stay there permanently. We see a resolution to her problems. But she doesn’t. It’s not what she wants. So she leaves.
To where? She watches the Pacific Ocean in winter. She gets the Amazon Fulfillment Center gig again. She does a jigsaw puzzle in a laundromat. Then it’s the camp in Arizona again. Her life is cyclical now but with inevitable changes. Swankie is dead, and they all toss rocks onto a fire for her because she loved rocks. Bob tosses one in and says “See you don’t the road.” That’s his philosophy: not goodbye but “see you down the road.” Later, he and Fern talk about the losses in their lives his son, gone five years now, and her husband Bo. Initially it feels like a simple sharing, this non-actor playing himself, and the great, no-bullshit actress doing her great, no-bullshit thing. But she’s in a search for answers and he’s not. His philosophy is so cohesive it’s almost like a religion:
I've met hundreds of people out here and I don't ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, “I’ll see you down the road.” And I do. And whether it's a month, or a year, or sometimes years, I see them again. And I can look down the road and I can be certain in my heart that I'll see my son again. You’ll see Bo again. And you can remember your lives together then.
I like the search better. I like uncertainty better than certainty. Particularly as it relates to down the road.
But is this the thing that finally helps Fern? He says “You can remember your lives together” because she’d quoted her father, “What’s remembered, lives,” and she adds that maybe she’s spent too much of her life remembering, i.e., not living. She doesn’t have much but she’s still holding on to too much. And in the next scenes, she finally lets go. She returns to Empire, the town that died, and she gives up the stuff she’d been keeping in storage. That’s when I thought of Nietzsche: “He who possesses little is possessed that much less.” (It’s like Marie Kondo without the PR.) Then she tours her old house, with no one there, with no one remotely interested, and heads out onto the road again. And that’s where it ends.
Question: Is that enough?
The movie is certainly atmospheric. It’s both depressing and—well, not exactly uplifting but it has a glint of some possibilities, of life lived in the moment; of a felt life rather than an artificial one. But then there are those Amazon Fulfillment Centers and Wall Drugs to work in, that slow death of the American soul. Is hanging outside the RV at the end of the day, around like-minded folks, enough to counteract that?
“Nomadland” is well-directed by Chloe Zhao, who won an Oscar for it. The movie won best picture. Frances McDormand won her third Oscar.
But is there enough of a story? Enough of an epiphany? Wisdom? Would I ever want to return to it?
Then there’s the fact that the movie was released a year into the pandemic, when we were all still hunkered down, and it was not a good time, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see this movie without thinking of that time. It's not a time I want to return to.