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'Nomadland' review: The woman in the van

Frances McDormand shines as an itinerant worker living out of a van in Chloé Zhao's quietly moving Oscar-nominated film

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'. Photo via AP
Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'. Photo via AP

Nomadland starts with a couple of shots as spare and elegiac as anything Roger Deakins might dream up. We see Fern (Frances McDormand) leaving her home of many years in the cold light of the early morning, packing her belongings into her van. She says goodbye to a friend and sets off. The houses, their clothes, the landscape, everything is blue and grey. Just when it all seems so poetic, director Chloé Zhao shows Fern doing her business in a frozen open field. And then we see the title, white letters occupying minimal space on a black screen. These opening three minutes offer a clue to the nature of this film, which situates its human figures against flat, empty landscapes, and which shows the rough beauty of the open road without hiding its drudgeries.

Much of the discourse around Nomadland, which is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Actress, has focused on the inequalities of the gig economy—a rather literal read of what’s decidedly not an “issue” film. Fern, who’s in her 60s, leaves the town of Empire, Nevada, after the gypsum factory where she and her late husband worked is shut down and the workforce laid off. Later, we see her working in an Amazon store, at a burger joint, in an amusement park cleaning bathrooms. All the while, she lives in her RV, moving from town to town, meeting up with other “nomads”. It’s not an easy life—there’s a scene that makes clear you have to defecate in a bucket if you live in a van—but for Fern, who can’t get by on benefits, it’s a way to stay independent and employed without being tied down.

Initially, my thoughts went to Ken Loach films like I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019), tales of ordinary people caught in the crush of capitalist progress. Yet, as Nomadland progressed, it became clear that Fern and others like her saw themselves not as victims of the system but as rebels against it. When the daughter of a friend bumps into Fern and expresses concern, Fern corrects her, saying, “I’m not homeless—I’m houseless.” Most of the nomads in the film are elderly, living alone, suffering some kind of loss; their fellow itinerants are the closest thing they have to family.

Late in the film, Fern makes two trips into society. The first is out of desperation: her RV breaks down, and she has to visit her sister to ask for a loan. Fern is seen as an eccentric by her brother-in-law and his friends; her sister alone understands that Fern just isn’t made for a polite suburban life (“It’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting”, she says, a diagnosis Fern can’t deny). She also visits David, a fellow-nomad who has a crush on her, staying with his family for a while. But she’s ill at ease in these settings, the strain of company weighing on her like loneliness might weigh on someone else.

There’s an American strain of outdoors living that stretches from Thoreau to Into The Wild’s Chris McCandless. Fern—who doesn’t shrink from human company so much as civilisation— belongs to this tradition. She’s a tough soul, clipped of speech, stubborn but kind. Her friends Linda May and Swankie are actual van-dwellers, as is Bob Wells, who organises the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a meeting place for people who, in the film’s parlance, adopt the lifestyle. It’s a measure of McDormand’s brilliant ordinariness, after more than 35 years of acting, that Zhao can surround her with real-life persons and she doesn’t stick out.

Nomadland is being spoken of as an Oscar favourite—an unlikely one, given its tendency towards quiet and understatement. There’s a muted glow to Joshua James Richards’ cinematography and Ludovico Einaudi’s score, and Zhao’s editing and direction is unobtrusive (a few ripples come from intuitive Malick-style cutting). From time to time, I felt the film passes over from naturalistic to drab—you can only go so far with flat, plainspoken dialogue. But its commitment to mundanity also means that the small joys its characters experience are magnified: Fern hopping in a canyon; a young wanderer exchanging a dinosaur bone lighter for a sonnet; Swankie murmuring “Oh, I see something neat” as she stares at a spectacular sunset.

Nomadland is playing in theatres.

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