Film Review: ‘Nomadland’: Destitute Elders in Vans in America’s Badlands

February 26, 2021 Updated: March 4, 2021

R | | Drama | 19 February 2021 (USA)

Here’s an interesting dilemma: “Nomadland” is a well-made movie with the feel of a documentary, since it uses many of the actual nomadic van dwellers written about in award-winning gonzo journalist Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name.

woman in front of RV's in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) is a “houseless” nomad, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

It’s got most critics out of their minds with happiness, but I had a hard time with it. It may be the most depressing thing I’ve seen in the last five years. What else should one feel about the subject matter? You’ve got elderly Americans forced out of secure lives by fate and into cruel states of Steinbeckian migrant survival, working the most menial jobs imaginable.

You’ve got your truck-stop toilet cleaning, sugar beet harvesting, and monotonous assembly-line-type Amazon factory jobs (the employers knowingly prey on the elderly), with no relief in sight. They live in vans that can easily break down in desolate stretches of nowhere, using five-gallon plastic containers as toilets. There needs to be a follow-up movie that depicts those for whom nomad life is, primarily, a calling and a joy.

woman standing in open space in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who lost her home, lives out of her van, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The mark of a truly great film is that you want to watch it over and over. The very thought of watching “Nomadland” again immediately lowers a cloud of melancholy. And yet it’s important information. It’s movie journalism about what’s going on out there in America’s giant backyard, with our elderly folk in dire straits, with no retirement options, while Washington seems out-of-touch.

woman walking at sunset in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

What Goes On

Directed by Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland” stars Frances McDormand of “Fargo” fame as a fictitious protagonist—one of a scant few professional actors in the midst of a sizable group of the nomads, playing themselves, written about in Bruder’s book.

It’s basically “The Grapes of Wrath” with McDormand as 61-year-old Fern representing a distilled version of the Joad family. Fern lost her husband and her job in Empire, Nevada, when the U.S. Gypsum Corp. (sheetrock) closed shop for good. Empire became a ghost town, and Fern hit the road in her white van.

woman and van at dusk in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) with her beloved van, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

It’s also “On the Road” in the Kerouac-ian sense—without the beatnik bongos and quest for dharma—where Fern meets the real-life van nomads, such as Swankie, a no-nonsense, crotchety van-life mentor of sorts; sweet, uncomplicated Linda, with whom Fern works at a South Dakota Badlands campsite disinfecting toilet stalls; and Bob Wells, who’s founded a sort of poor man’s “Burning Man” gathering (no counterculture, just van culture) in Arizona, called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.

gathering of people an RV's in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) attending classes at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Fern learns the van migrant worker itinerary and attends instructional classes offered at the Rendezvous, learning things such as what size plastic can to use for your van toilet, how to fix a flat tire, and the understanding that you can easily die out there, living in a van, on your own.

There are many bonfires, AA-meeting-type sharings about how they all got into the life, fireside memorials for those who’ve passed on, and much trading and swapping of knickknacks, cigarette lighters, can openers, and so on. One gets the sense that most are here because they have no choice.

woman, clothesline, and van in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) trying to make van life cozy, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

David Strahairn plays Dave, an elderly, white-goateed gentleman who takes an unrequited shine to Fern and pursues her mildly throughout, eventually inviting her to his son’s farm, where he’s decided to put down roots for a bit and try and play grandfather.

No ‘There’ There

And that’s your basic plotless experience, sort of an elderly van-dweller version of Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” but with none of the hope, promise, newness, and excitement of youth. It also functions as a companion piece to 2019’s “The Short History of the Long Road,” about a father-daughter van-nomad team, the father (Steven Ogg) being a good example of a guy who loves the nomad life.

There seems to be an odd inconsistency with McDormand’s character that undermined believability and subconsciously whittled away at the suspension of disbelief. Here’s a woman who admittedly remained a homebody in her bleak town, in her bleak house (grown exponentially lonelier by the death of her husband), till the bloody end, because she was endlessly attached to all of it.

Then, her sister tells her that she, Fern, was always the courageous one. And once on the road, Fern exhibits an almost pathological restlessness and skittishness, and a need to keep moving. She desires to be fully self-sufficient and not get too close to anybody. It’s two diametrically opposed states of being. Which one is she, really? It seems that if she’d always been as restless as she later appears to be, she would have hit the road far earlier.

woman and fallen redwood tree in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) doing some sightseeing, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Nomadland, No Man’s Land

America, in its current trend, may soon see many, many more houseless folks. But laws are quickly going into effect that prohibit houselessness, making America no longer Nomadland but no man’s land—you park, you get arrested. And those are badlands, in my book.

woman having a smoke next to van in Nomadland
Fern (Frances McDormand) reflecting on life, in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, many van-dwelling elders as themselves
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Rating: R
Release Date: Feb. 19, 2021
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars for documentary aspect, 1.5 for entertainment

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch