Van Life isn’t so Glamorous in ‘Nomadland’

The buzzed-about Frances McDormand film doesn’t pack the punch, or contain the fine-grain detail of Jessica Bruder’s book.

Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland was all about surviving. The much-praised film version is all about grieving and accepting death. The film vibrates with moral seriousness, but it misses all the best qualities of the book, where one learned about the ingenuity of the houseless as much as their plight.

We’re all sick to death of quarantine and ready for a road picture, and there’s a certain local appeal to this film, already a critical success — the star, Frances McDormand has a second place out our way; maybe she saw the sliced up license plates they sell as yard art in Inverness Park, since that’s on the poster.

You don’t have to be a local to fear that you’ll lose your home and end up in a van by the river. Author Jessica Bruder lived in her own trailer as she followed the migratory routes of houseless folk, from Arizona in the winter to the high plains in the summer. Bruder chronicled the brutal work done by retirees, whose social security is inadequate to live on.

The gigs included painful stints at the Amazon warehouses during the holiday season, as well as literal shitwork, cleaning up campgrounds all over the West. Bruder was hired to harvest sugar beets in the Dakotas, an effort that meant dodging airborne, mud-slippery beets the size of basketballs. The book didn’t shy away from the realities of tin can living. Broder got so used to people living in vans that she realized she hadn’t noticed when she was setting her dinner plate down on top of the bucket that her host was using as a latrine. 

There is a reference to the toilet situation — Fern (McDormand) gets a case of the squirts while sitting on a plastic bucket in her van, and mops up some camper’s mess at a park in the Dakotas. But Chloe Zhao’s filmmaking is exhaustingly polite and remote, and I don’t think she understands the appeal of a hobo fantasy, which could have put some pleasure and some salt into this movie. When Hemingway said American literature started with Huckleberry Finn, he was acknowledging that lure to wander that’s lodged deep inside our culture. Zhao seems most attracted to the settled moments, including a Thanksgiving meal of dull and preposterous richness.

Fern has suffered a pair of losses: one was of her husband, Beau, and the other is the loss of the town she lived in. Empire, Nevada, was run by US Gypsum. When the company folded its tent after 80 years, the locals went elsewhere, and the government decommissioned its zip code. It was left as a mid 20th century ghost town. 

Empire, located in lonely and titanic country far from Reno, is familiar to those who drive to Burning Man on Highway 447, praying that their cars will make it all the way. Fern puts everything in storage, gets a van, and heads out to find a job at Amazon at the other end of the state. In her account, Bruder made you understand and dread the work there. In the film Nomadland, the gig is little better than product placement, shot with such circumspection and team-building rites that Jeff Bezos might have been looking over Zhao’s shoulder.

Zhao uses many non-professional actors, especially during Fern’s arrival at the annual outdoor festival called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzite, Arizona. Broder noted the class differences between wealthy people travelling in ginormous diesel land yachts and those who might be living out of minivans. It was as clear a social division as you’d see in a high school lunchroom. 

The film’s incidents here are a lot more colorless, even if there is some range of events at the RTR — everything from tai-chi classes to a taser demonstration. One little glimpse of the kind of film this could have been has an old hippie playing a talking blues on an out of tune saloon piano. (It’s akin to the best scenes from Into the Wild, at the California nomad colony Slab City.) 

Non-pro actors come up to Fern and tell their stories, making her a sounding board. The non-pros are allowed to react; they’re not stuck, as McDormand is, with the conception of a wary, locked-in character whose grief has elevated them out of the reach of others. Nomadland keeps coming to life when Fern’s comrade shows up: Charlene Swankie as “Swankie,” an elder in uncertain health who had no choice but to hit the road.   

A mark of how overdetermined Nomadland’s mood is in the cameo by the whiskery nomad Bob Wells. Wells is an evangelist for this way of life. His ebullience is visible on dozens of his YouTube videos, demonstrating how to make living in a van relatively cozy and healthy. These videos are made as much for those who want to spend their last years adventuring on the road, as they are meant for people who — like Wells himself — originally had to go live in their car because they were broke. In his cameo, Wells gives a lecture on “the ten commandments of stealth parking,” and, like any good populist politician, pontificates on the tyranny of the dollar. But the hopefulness and humor Wells has radiated elsewhere isn’t really part of this story. 

Nomadland’s lines are studiously artless, with Fern begging at an employment office: “I need work. I like work.” But the script lets us down with a story of a person who died right before they could retire, leaving the sailboat they were going to cruise in parked in the driveway: “I don’t want my sailboat to be in my driveway when I die” ends the story. I’ve seen this sailboat, and so has anyone who ever watched a cop movie — the about-to-retire lifer cop shows the young rookie a picture of it. It’s what Chief Clancy Wiggums called “retirony.” 

The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is blue and cold. McDormand looks as rawboned as Andrew Wyeth’s Helga, clad in shifts and shapeless dresses and long underwear tops. After having won the Oscar for playing a driven, tunnel-visioned woman in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, McDormand has a secret to success. She’s cut off a lot of her reactions.

She occasionally but rarely has fun with the part. One exception is something like the zoo-montage in a kooky ’60s romantic movie — a visit to the reptile attractions at South Dakota’s Wall Drugs. Fern has a big yellow anaconda draped over her shoulders and watches an attendant tease a captive alligator with a bloody lump of carrion. She explores some knee-high sandstone hillocks in the Badlands, while keeping an awkward friendship with a fellow wanderer, Dave (David Strathairn).

Still, no one could accuse Zhao of making the material too light, or of romanticizing nomad life. I haven’t seen her first films, particularly her debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, set about a hundred miles from where Fern spends her summer working in Wall Drug. The prairie appeals to Zhao, and she has fresh angles on it — she photographs a buffalo from behind, to check out its deer-like haunches instead of its chest, where the muscle is. 

She also notes the bleakness. Take the sign inside the kitchen at Wall Drugs: “FOOD PRODUCT THEFT WILL BE CAUSE FOR IMMEDIATE DISMISSAL.” Note the Edward Hopper shot of Fern on the empty main street of town where the only movie playing is The Avengers, and only on weekends.   

The last third of Nomadland gets frustrating; after the van breaks down, Fern has no other options and must stay with her sister, a situation barbed with old resentments. Later there’s a Thanksgiving at Dave’s son’s unbelievably lush farmhouse near Mendocino. A more incisive director could have made more out of the contrast between the tight living in a high-mileage van to this gigantic spread. Like her faith in non-pro acting, Zhao’s faith in improv fails the test — hearing the chime of wine glasses touching, Straithairn’s David says, “It’s like the bells at Arcosanti!”

It’s a weird note to those who don’t know that Phoenix-area bell-making collective. Strathairn is a fine actor, but he has a tendency for sad-sackism, noted in another movie about Thanksgiving, Home for the Holidays. The matchup between Fern and Dave is tension free, since McDormand and Strathairn are virtually the same actor. It’s like going to a party where the host made two guests sit together because they’re both forlorn cases.

Nomadland opens Feb. 19 in theaters and on Hulu.

Related Stories