Patrick Mulcahy on the realities of nomad capitalism
For long sections, the film Nomadland plays like a documentary in which director Chloé Zhao follows actress (and double Oscar-winner) Frances McDormand as she adopts the lifestyle of a transient person – minus those moments to camera when McDormand reflects on a hand-to-mouth existence that she is fortunate not to have. McDormand is one of only two professional actors in the cast – the other is David Strathairn – and she detracts from the story being told. She doesn’t give a bad performance – McDormand can corner the market in brittle loners – but she is surrounded by people who exude lived experience, the true survivors.
The film, which McDormand also produced, is based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name (subtitled ‘Surviving America in the 21st Century’) in which the author followed house-less Linda May as she travelled from state to state in her recreational vehicle, living off seasonal work with no government support. In adapting the book, Zhao follows a fictional character, Fern (McDormand), a widow who once lived in the factory town of Empire, Nevada. The factory closed. The town’s population dispersed. We first meet Fern at the lock-up garage where most of her possessions are kept. It is a brief stopover before she heads off to an Amazon packaging plant where she has a temporary job. We see Fern throw herself into her work with a mixture of infectious energy and professional care as she scans barcodes of parcels on their way to customers. Then, just as suddenly, she moves on, at risk of hypothermia with sudden temperature drops.
Fern is invited to join a community of travelling workers in the desert, where they swap stories, share meals and offer mutual support. They are a benign version of the motorised community in the Mad Max films, albeit with anti-capitalist rhetoric. She meets a young man, also on the move, whom she taught in a school in Empire. Fern is warned about the need to attend to her vehicle. If it stops moving, so does she. She also meets a man, Dave (Strathairn), who helps her get another job the following summer, though when moving a box for her, he is responsible for crockery dropping through the bottom of the box. Simmering with rage, noting that many of the plates have a sentimental value, Fern tells him to go away.
Zhao portrays an alternative view of America, where individuals aren’t defined by their jobs, but instead by their warmth and willingness to help others. But these individuals are denied the opportunity to build something and they are isolated from their families through shame. At one point, Fern asks her sister for help, doing so through gritted teeth.
Insomuch as there is drama, the film asks whether Fern can form another relationship. Her life in isolation honours her husband and we sense that maybe she doesn’t want to become attached to someone else, even when Dave invites her to stay at his son’s home. (The son is played by David Strathairn’s actual son, Tay.) When, late in the film, Fern is lying on a bed in a house, not at the mercy of the elements, we feel her unease. Sure, it is comfortable, but it isn’t hers.
Towards the end of the film, in its only heavy-handed moment, Fern revisits Empire, a journey more for the audience than for her. The town resembles a 1950s nuclear test site after an explosion, with properties, including her own home, left empty. It is in this moment that McDormand doubles as a tour guide. Look at the waste, she appears to be saying; why can’t we design communities to be more resilient?
At its heart is an observation that when we see service employees at work, we have no way of guessing where they come from and what their stories might be. Zhao shows their dignity. The villain of the piece is a cruel form of capitalism that doesn’t invest in workers but asks that they chase employment, ostensibly for the benefit of the more privileged. Corporate America exploits a travelling workforce, giving only temporary wages back. Zhao doesn’t overtly blame corporations – her film was produced by one, Fox, since acquired by Disney. There is a disconnect between the ending – Fern choosing a road that hints at a return to normalcy – and the community that Zhao honours, where such choices aren’t available. The stars of the movie are the real nomads – Linda May (Bruder’s subject), Swankie and others, all playing themselves. All over 50 – marginalised and unseen – but illuminated by Zhao’s spotlight.