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By Robert Koehler
A passage in Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland describes the unlikely birth and hard death of the life of Empire, a mining town in northwest Nevada. “In 1923,” Bruder writes, “laborers established a tent colony on the site of what later became the town. By some accounts, Empire boasted the longest continuously operating mine in the country, excavating a claim first established by Pacific Portland Cement Company in 1910. On December 2, 2010, that history came to a sudden stop. Workers in steel-toed shoes and hard hats gathered in the community hall at 7:30 am for a mandatory meeting. Mike Spihlman, the gypsum plant’s soft-spoken manager, delivered a grim edict to a room full of stunned faces: Empire was shutting down. Everyone had until June 20 to leave. First came silence, then came tears. ‘I had to stand in front of ninety-two people and say, ‘Not only do you not have a job anymore, you don’t have a house anymore,’ Mike recalled, sighing heavily.” Bruder explains how the mine owner and the town’s only employer, US Gypsum, hemorrhaged money in the wake of the Great Recession of 2009, and concludes: “So while many towns had merely been scarred by the recession, Empire would completely disappear.”
This is the foundational tragedy in Bruder’s sprawling reportage of how a group of victims of the American brand of capitalism survived as best they could under brutal conditions, how they lost their money, their means, their shelters, and how they packed up and hit the road. Bruder’s account begins in tragedy, and proceeds into something equally American: a certain, determined mission to survive, to find slender reeds of life and humanity, even community, among the thousands of ex-middle-class nomads living out of crummy RVs, shifting from one seasonal gig to another across the landscape of the West.
Bruder’s chronicling is grounded in the granular, literary tradition of The New Yorker, engrossed in the specific (note those “steel-toed shoes” in the previous passage) to illustrate the general, fascinated by the countless human quirks that comprise individuals and their unpredictable responses to forces far greater than themselves. Like the best war correspondents, she embeds herself in the moment, the scene itself, all the more to erase her presence as narrator so the reader is at one with the character at hand. Bruder aims not so much for sympathy as sober-minded empathy, with one eye on the latest quotidian issue that one of these nomads is tackling, and the other eye on the gravity and force of economics and history, the grinding processes of capitalism.
Nomadland the movie is the polar opposite of granular. Influenced to distressing degrees by the fleecier indulgences of Terrence Malick and his ilk, along with a raft of the kinds of American indies about distressed rural America that have rolled off the Sundance conveyor belt for more than 30 years, the movie travels along the highways and byways of the West with a late-middle-aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand). Fern is an amalgamation, combining various aspects of several figures in Bruder’s book. Readers will be able to spot the combinations and calculations formulated by writer-director Chloe Zhao, who can never decide what kind of movie she wants to make. This was the problem that also dogged The Rider (2017), an absurdly overrated, overhyped contemporary Western that suffered from many of the same problems that plague Nomadland: an inchoate centre, an avoidance of the worst things that could conceivably happen to the central character, a borderline kitsch attachment to landscape shots for their own sake, and a knack for gliding over the harder truths underlying the story. The Rider, on its own, is mighty thin gruel compared to the same year’s Lean on Pete, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s magnificent, terrifying, and (in every aspect) vastly superior drama, also about a young man and his adventure with a horse.
The stakes in Lean on Pete, as in Bruder’s Nomadland, are that vulnerable people (boys without parents or guardians in the former, elderly women without companions in the latter), tossed out onto the West’s harsh, unyielding wilderness, are sure to encounter close brushes with death or near-death, and sooner rather than later. But there is never any such concern in Nomadland, the movie. Among many other things, McDormand incarnates from the get-go the quintessential flinty survivor. Spend five minutes with McDormand on screen in any of her roles and we know that she’ll get through pretty much anything intact, and usually do it (depending on the script) in interesting and unexpected ways. When she’s introduced in the movie’s opening moments, she’s already hardened, skin like leather. She’s alone in her sad little trailer, eking out a living with seasonal work at an Amazon reclamation centre (a favourite job for older folks living out of their mobile vehicles and seasonally moving from one spot to another). She has to keep pulling up stakes and going somewhere else. But just look at her. She’ll get by. She may not make it, in the pre-Recession notion of “making it”; in fact, she definitely won’t, and doesn’t even look like she wants to, like an old hippie trying to live off the grid. But will she die trying? Not even close.
Some of the peripheral characters crossing paths with Fern do meet their maker, and death hangs over Bruder’s characters like a nasty landlord. But the movie’s avoidance of the dire precariousness of this 21st-century form of riding the rails—an old American romance that actually killed off most of the tough folks who tried it—betrays a fear of death, and evinces what can be identified as a bourgeois artistic attitude toward middle-class folks suddenly thrust into the vast sea of the working poor. Those who engage in the new American nomadism must, by definition, go through a dark night of the soul, not just acknowledging, as Bruder describes in heartrending detail, that the old middle-class life has to be jettisoned for a starker, downscale one; but that their path forward is unknown, recognizing that the joys of throwing yourself to the whims and hazards of the road is outrageously dangerous. (We’re watching this sense of free-wheeling, libertarian risk-loving right now, with millions of Americans—while millions of Canadians look down in shocked horror—willing to mix in groups, in public and indoors, without wearing a mask.) Bruder identifies a peculiarly American attraction for the elixir of freedom mixed with extreme danger, and as rich as her chronicle can be in tracking the large economic and social forces behind this invisible nation-state she’s identified as “Nomadland,” her collection of character studies sing the tune of this American psychological dilemma. Freedom at all cost: live free or die doesn’t even get at the half of it—live free and probably die in the act of doing so is the true credo of these Amazon-era nomads.
The character of Fern lives in an entirely different universe, and as carefully as Zhao has selected from the various bits and pieces in Bruder’s reporting, her movie wanders so far from the source material that viewers who read the book may start wondering what the hell they’re watching. Part of the problem isn’t even so much the wrongly presumed asset of McDormand’s indomitable essence, but the movie’s mistake of including any recognizable movie faces at all. It sprinkles in a number of real folks, particularly Bob Wells, the leader of the “vandwelling” movement and organizer of the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona. Fern, like everywhere she goes in the movie, suddenly shows up at the rendezvous, listening to Bob’s homilies and pieces of crafty wisdom, and—for a few precious minutes of screen time—there is a sense of community, that all these vandwellers and nomads are actually not on their own, and could benefit from some mutual aid. But the moment McDormand lays eyes on the highly recognizable David Strathairn (as Dave), the viewer knows that they’ll eventually get together, as resistant as the loner Fern can be. Zhao’s screenplay strings along the viewer with this promise, but it never feels like a desirable one: it just feels like an extremely bad filmmaking idea. Only rarely does the inclusion of an international movie star not upset the artistic intentions of an absolute kind of realism, and this strategy works best inside a project whose realism is stylized to one degree or another (Jauja  being a prime example). For a movie version of Bruder’s book, it’s arguable that going the full Robert Altman route would be preferable—a kaleidoscopic overview of an American community of misfits and characters, all played by ace character actors. Either that, or the more radical option of a movie cast thoroughly with unknowns. Zhao, like a particularly bad compromise that Democrats might make with Republicans, opts for some squishy middle, with a couple of big faces intermingled with the hoi polloi.
The Fern-Dave storyline has nothing to do with the actual “Nomadland,” and by the time it follows them into a sequence that openly imitates Malick at his worst (cameras swinging around grassy fields, etc.), the screenplay has no clue what to do with them. After several scenes and sequences, they keep unaccountably running into each other—Arizona one week, the Badlands of South Dakota the next—the movie stops the relationship cold in a house in what looks like Mendocino County in Northern California. After a spell, Fern just leaves.
Why? The movie has no clue here either. Dave seems nice enough, and a decent enough companion. There’s not much to him, and Strathairn—one of those actors whom we can always detect has a sharp, articulate brain—can’t do much with him. But there’s not much to Fern either, and so if they stay together, or not, it doesn’t mean much one way or the other. The best that the movie provides as a map for Fern’s feelings and actions is a sappy scene or two in which Fern still misses her husband, who died in Empire before the town shut down. Still, as hard as McDormand tries to sell it, we never quite believe that her loss explains her permanent blockage for human connection; and, in any case, the notion of Fern moving on from her past is the one narrative thread that the movie appears to dangle in front of the viewer. She’s on the road, leaving Empire behind in the first scenes, but she’s also going somewhere. She must be. Dave is as good as a destination as any.
The act of Fern leaving Dave without so much as a kind goodbye is meant to be seen as some sort of act of liberation, at least as Zhao’s consistently vague direction suggests, but it just comes off as mean. Her act calls for something which Bruder’s reporting provides in spades: an emotional mapping of the conflicting desires of people at the end of their tether when they may feel, superficially, that they’re “free.” This points to a serious act of betrayal on the movie’s part: failing, even refusing, to take on Bruder’s project and transform it into a dramatic narrative that deals with one of the book’s central notions, the limited illusion at the heart of the romantic American attachment to a certain type of “freedom.” Bruder loves her characters, shares time and breaks bread with them, but she knows that they are, underneath their tough exteriors, scared out of their wits. Because American capitalism is, by its nature, as scary as the open road can be. The system and the road are metaphors for each other, and naturally cinematic. These kinds of complexities are flagrantly rejected by the movie, which leaves the viewer with an illusion.
Bruder describes the vacated Empire as “sealed away behind chained gates, with security cameras and trespassing signs. The cottages along with a public pool, two churches, a post office, and a nine-hole golf course were left to rot…To keep the weeds down, the company imported two dozen goats, which roamed the new ghost town like a pack of organic lawn mowers. Years later, visitors would compare the place to Chernobyl, a catalog of interrupted lives.” In the end, Fern returns to Empire, visits her old office, drops by her old house. According to Bruder’s reporting, though, this would be impossible: a person on their own wouldn’t be able to breach Empire’s sealed gates. Typical of a movie hesitant to face hard truths and harsh details, Fern sees a ghost town but without the disturbing decline and rot, outside of some dust piling up on her old office desk. What any of these means to her remains a mystery, and not an interesting one. Fern just walks off the screen into the Nevada desert, but since we know this is Frances McDormand, she’ll certainly live another day. Drift is one of the great cinematic subjects of modern movies, but must be handled with nuance, care, and expressiveness. Nomadland the movie gets lost in its own drift, and, simply, drops off the map.