Nomad land consists essentially of two competing and incompatible films.
The first and more successful film is a character study of its protagonist. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who started a life on the streets following the death of her husband and the devastation of the community she lived in. Far is a wanderer, a troubled soul caught between the harsh demands of street life and the freedom such a lifestyle offers her. She is a troubled soul wandering the vast open plains of the United States of America.
The second and irreconcilable film is a snapshot of a particular class of people that evolved after the great recession. As jobs were destroyed and homes recaptured, large numbers of people were dispossessed and forced to lead wandering lives that largely relied on the gig economy to keep their heads above the ever-rising tide. There is something almost documentary about this film that comes from Jessica Brother’s non-fiction book and contains many current films “Nomads” in supporting roles.
Nomad land rightly refuses to condescend to those people who found a way to survive on the edge. The decision to focus on a character like Fern, however, robs the film of many potential stitches and insights. Watch out Nomad landThere is something almost empowering about the way Fern’s existence plays out. In this sense, Fern lives the way she always wanted to be on a certain level. This seems rather cynical and calculated in the context of the very real and devastating trauma of the financial crisis and the destruction it has wrought.
Nomad land is most interesting when it comes to Fern as a character, rather than trying to offer a broader study of this new nomadic working class. McDormand remains one of the best actresses of her generation, and she works hard to make Fern complex and multifaceted – a character who may not get along as well as the film around them. The film joins Fern shortly after she embraced this new life – not so early that she didn’t name her van (“Vanguard”), but soon enough that she has not yet learned to keep a spare tire close at hand.
Nomad land refuses to pity Fern, and it is right to do so. When a girl who taught her asks if she is homeless, Fern quickly clarifies: “I’m not homeless. I’m just homeless. Not the same.” There is a sense of enthusiastic exploration as Fern finds out how this world works and how best to navigate it. Scenes in which Fern does ungrateful service-level jobs to support himself are juxtaposed with sequences that capture the awe and majesty of a completely free life – seeing bats fly out of their nests in cliff walls or seeing a man playing an alligator as a spectacle feeds.
Naturally, Nomad land suggests Fern is a troubled soul, someone who never really fits in with it. Her sister reflects the fact that Fern was never one who wanted to put down roots or adapt to what society expected of her. In fact, she seems as surprised as anyone that she lived in a house with her husband on her last job. “We had an airport, a public swimming pool, a golf course.” it reflects its time “A company track”, though she fondly remembers that the back yard was fair “Desert, desert, desert up to the mountains. Nothing stood in our way. “
From Fern’s point of view Nomad land is essentially a journey of self-discovery. Never downplaying how hard it is to survive on the streets, the film takes care of the simple jobs Fern works on to pay for their way and the various obstacles that arise. However, the film also suggests that Fern has found some peace or comfort in that existence. “I think what the nomads do is not that different from what the pioneers did.” her sister argues at one point. “I think Fern is part of an American tradition. I think it’s great.” It’s a little condescending, but it’s not inaccurate either.
The problem arises from the way in which Nomad land tries to tell Fern’s story as a journey of self-empowerment against the backdrop of the Great Recession. Fern may have found their groove on this lifestyle, but it seems fair that very few people live the way they want. In fact, one of the early seminars Fern attends on the subject is specifically framed “A support system for people who need help now.” So it just feels a little crass to portray Fern’s journey as a journey of self-realization.
Nomad land refuses to patronize or condescend the people who lived this way, which is more than reasonable. Director Chloé Zhao makes a point of including real nomads in key sequences to add a touch of authenticity to the story she tells. However, Nomad land refuses to get particularly angry or sad about what any of these characters have lost or what system has changed in such a way that this is the only way these people can survive.
Fern is ultimately as close to a perfect fit for this life as you can imagine – a point that Nomad land makes repeated and persistent. However, it seems fair to ask whether everyone who lives this way does so voluntarily and whether there are souls in the community who do not find it liberating or liberating, who instead mourn what they have lost , and rightly opposed to a society that refuses to give anything they support the security they once assumed.
The problem is the gap between Fern as the protagonist and the Great Recession as the backdrop, and the problem is compounded by the harshness of the film. Nomad land is never a particularly subtle film that often positions itself as a bold meditation on the human condition and the American experience. Fern visits a sedentary traveler who has found peace with his family. “You have a flat tire on your van, Dave.” Dave replies, “I would not have noticed it.” Fern replies, “That’s because you’re staying.” All in Nomad land a similar depth is granted.
The result is that Nomad land seems to position Fern’s journey not as a single story, but as a larger commentary – as “Part of an American tradition.” Indeed, a long-distance traveler assures “You are one of the lucky people from the United States of America.” These are presented as profound and neutral statements, but with little introspection. Nomad land presents shift work in an Amazon warehouse as a fact of life rather than the horror it is.
The answer to all of this, of course, is that working conditions like those in Amazonian camps are a roof over their head for thousands and thousands of Americans. That’s true, but as Nomad land has an obligation to show the reality – the reality of employees being forced to pee in bottles to meet absurd deadlines, managers floating and marking employees for the presumption of speaking, injuries resulting from the rush, achieve unrealistic goals.
As a prize winner, Nomad land will be the only gateway most of its viewers will ever have to the reality of the experience. As such, there is an obligation to treat it as more than just virtual tourism, taking into account the nobility and resilience of these conditions. This resilience is remarkable and solemn, but it shouldn’t be expected either – the fact that so many people have to live like this under these conditions is not the backdrop for a story about self-actualization, but a horror story about how fundamentally broken the world is.
Nomad land would be a much stronger movie if it were content to work as a remote character study belonging to that subgenre of the rich award season about characters discovering a new way of life late in their lives. However, the decision to combine this template with a more serious and confident study of America today does not result in either story doing any favors.