Nomadland opens with a shocking statistic. In January 2011, the Gypsum quarry in the mining town of Empire, Nevada was closed. Within 6 months, so many people had left that the postcode was withdrawn. Fern (Frances McDormand) is one of the people who left. Following the death of her husband she became “houseless but not homeless”, living in her van as part of the rapidly growing Nomad community.
Fern makes money where she can – flipping burgers, working on recreational parks, working in the Amazon factory. And this has led some Left critics to be wary. In an otherwise positive review, the great Jacobin critic Eileen Jones notes that “Fern, gets a job as a seasonal temp worker at Amazon and is shown strolling through the vast warehouse carrying a single lightweight bin, smiling and nodding to fellow workers who also do their jobs at a leisurely pace.”
As Jones rightly points out, work at Amazon just isn’t like that. And Fern’s only response to the work seems to be that “the pay’s good”. Indeed, this segment of the film seems to have been created by Amazon’s marketing department, and the firm’s logo features prominently. It is here that you fear a repeat of Somers Town, the unfortunate film where Shane Meadows took a heap of money from Eurostar to make what turned out to be a 70 minute commercial.
Fortunately, Nomadland chooses to concentrate on something else entirely. Life for the Nomads is at subsistence level, and when something unexpected happens, like a malfunctioning van or a diagnosis of cancer, it could take you over the edge. At one stage, the Nomads are compared to the pioneers. A better comparison would be Okies fleeting the havoc wreaked by the Dust Bowl like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.
Notwithstanding their insecure existence, the Nomads stoically overcome their manifold misadventures. This is made all the more believable by that fact that – with the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn – all characters are played by your actual Nomads. Many lines sound like they’re from a documentary, and while there’s sometimes a little too much hippy philosophising for my taste, we see a strong and dignified community.
Bur the main reason that the film doesn’t sink into sentimentality is a remarkable performance by McDormand. She is almost unparalleled amongst contemporary actors in her ability to show authenticity, thoughtfulness and intelligence. This is necessary to portray a conflicted character. Fern is gregarious, everybody’s friend, but is also scared of commitment and intimacy. In part she enjoys the nomadic lifestyle because it means not having to spend all your time with other people.
You do find yourself asking though, what’s the point? What is Nomadland trying to say? Director Chloe Zhao has made a big thing about the film not being political. She’s wrong of course. This is a deeply political film, highlighting the precarious life of the Nomads, even while strenuously avoiding any mention of who might be to blame. Fern has one sly dig at her estate agent brother in law, but most of the time, the Nomads are portrayed as being victims of capricious fate.
Yet complaining that a film is not the one you want it to be can only get you so far. And let’s pause for a moment to remember what it does contain. Here is a multi-Oscar winning film about a woman in her sixties. The main characters wear neither sharp suits nor spandex costumes. And it trusts our intelligence to view the characters and make up our own minds about them. Plus the scenery – including quite a lot of shots of Badlands – isn’t half bad.
Eileen Jones called Nomadland a Great and Terrible film, and I can see where she’s coming from. For middle class liberals it can be a reassurance that everything’s all right in the world. Ok, millions are forced to put up with a life constantly teetering on the brink of homelessness, but they don’t complain. They accept their lot, so we can all feel good about ourselves.
But, push a little behind the surface and its about much more than this. This is a film about the dignity of Labour. Unlike most poverty porn which ends up blaming poor people for their own situation, this is an empowering film where the feckless scroungers are the exchange agents. Sure, it is open to multiple interpretations, but pretty much all great films are.