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“into the lifeboats” – a review of Nomadland

“You could not have been born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.” – Simone Weil

Having been forced to flee, a weary traveler returns to the ruins of the town where she once lived. Walking through the vacant remains of a mining facility she observes the idle machinery, the forgotten mugs that had once been filled with coffee, and draws her finger across a surface top disturbing the dust that has steadily accumulated. Leaving the mine, she goes back to the street where she once dwelt.  Knowing she does not need to worry about motorists, she strides slowly down the middle of the road, past empty houses on lots where untamed nature has flourished in the absence of lawnmowers and weedwhackers. Eventually she comes to the house that had once belonged to her, she enters quietly, moving through the empty rooms where all that remains now are faded carpet and memories. Making her way to the back door she looks out at the distant mountains, the desert separating her backdoor from those peaks now looking all the more desolate.

The previously described scenes could have come from any number of different films or television programs. It is easy to imagine the prior paragraph with a roving band of cannibals hunting the heroine, or some unspeakable eldritch horror lurking in the mine’s depths, or zombies shambling hungrily in the background. Similarly, you could easily turn up the dial on the ruins and have the town in question feature burnt out vehicles from a wildfire, or the vacant homes could bear the signs of flooding that has since receded. We have internalized the imagery of disaster and post-apocalyptic movies/television well: abandoned towns, deserted buildings, lonely haggard survivors, a search for some measure of hope amidst the wreckage—these things are not so much disturbing as they are the standard tropes of genres we know only too well. But the scenes described above do not come from a blockbuster film where a superstorm levels a city, or a horror film in which the undead rise from the grave to feast on human flesh: they come from a quiet, understated film depicting the here and now.

It doesn’t feel quite accurate to describe Nomadland as a disaster film or a post-apocalyptic film. Nevertheless, Nomadland is probably the most important disaster/post-apocalyptic film you can watch right now.

Nomadland presents the tale of a year in the life of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman roaming the country in her van, in the wake of her husband’s death and the collapse of the town where she had lived and worked most of her life (after the 2008 economic crisis). Fern’s itinerant life is presented through a series of odd jobs: working the Christmas rush at an Amazon fulfillment center, helping sell rocks, working in the kitchens at Wall Drug, cleaning bathrooms and maintaining grounds as a camp host at a national park, and helping harvest beets. Along her travels Fern moves in and out of circles of other modern day nomads, whose life stories somberly parallel many aspects of her own—there are a handful of crusty young travelers with dreadlocks, but mostly there is gray hair and wrinkled faces. As her travels keep her shifting between community and isolation, at one point, on the recommendation of a friend, Fern travels to a large meet up/skill share of fellow travelers hosted by the white-bearded Bob Wells, who serves as something of a guru for these van and camper dwellers. As she makes her way through the country, Fern explores the national parks, unhappily asks for assistance from her sister, briefly enjoys the hospitality of the family of a fellow nomad, but more than anything else Fern just keeps moving.

Directed by Chloé Zhao, and based on the book by Jessica Bruder, with a cast that is overwhelmingly filled with regular people playing themselves, the plot of Nomadland is something of a circle. Though there are elements of the film that briefly hint at a standard movie plot (a fellow nomad, played by David Strathairn, clearly has romantic interest in Fern), the film concludes largely where it began. Any viewer who sits down to watch Nomadland expecting the film to end with a bright backyard barbecue as Fern stares contentedly at her new house while thinking happily about her great new job, will be disappointed. Nobody comes to save Fern. Indeed, Fern makes it clear repeatedly throughout the film that she does not need, expect, or want to be saved. And when offers are made to her along the lines of “you can stay here,” Fern always politely refuses and keeps moving. Nomadland is a quiet film, and Fern does not say terribly much. McDormand plays Fern as a consummate listener, sitting with attentive sadness as the various other nomads tell her their stories. The film does not end, so much as it continues. The viewer is watching a cycle, not how that cycle gets broken.

Fern is not a “doomsday prepper,” a religious fanatic pining for the apocalypse, or another variety of end of the world larper that the media so enjoys mocking. And yet Fern is in many ways reminiscent of the types of characters familiar from disaster and post-apocalyptic cinema—put a machete in her hand and she would fit right in on The Walking Dead. For Fern is above all else a survivor. Nomadland is not a film about the end of the world, but it is certainly a film that captures the lives of people living in the ruins of the end of the world as they knew it.

Of course, Nomadland doesn’t really seem to fit easily into the disaster/post-apocalyptic genres. After all, the film does not feature a cataclysmic weather event, monster attack, geoengineering experiment gone horribly wrong, or other special-effects laden catastrophe. The world around Fern has kept going: something which is made starkly clear as she moves back and forth in the Amazon warehouse, helping send packages laden with consumer goods off to people with permanent mailing addresses. Whereas a common feature of disaster/post-apocalyptic narratives is an event that represents some form of hard and sudden stop, one that wipes the slate clean and provides new terrain on which the world is rebuilt (for better or often for worse), in Nomadland the world never stopped. The wanderers of Nomadland are a strange bunch: they are the survivors in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, that refuses to acknowledge that it has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. While many disaster films focus on massive events that represent devastating breaks from normalcy, Nomadland is a film about what happens when a society learns to just shrug at its disasters and keep shopping, even as the victims of the disaster take temporary jobs fulfilling the shopping orders for those who haven’t heard the bad news yet.

While Nomadland has already secured itself a fair amount of award season buzz, it’s worth noting that there are certainly aspects of the film that should be critiqued. And the point of this review is not to suggest that it is a perfect film, but to argue that the film can (and should) be seen as a disaster/post-apocalyptic narrative. The aspect of the film that is likely to spark the most ire (at least from some viewers) is that the film goes pretty easy on Amazon. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Nomadland portrays the Amazon facility as wonderful, or Amazon as a benevolent company, but the warehouse is portrayed as bright and filled with friendly fellow workers. Nearly as much time is spent with Fern learning the meanings of a fellow Amazon workers tattoos as is spent showing Fern laboring in the facility—we see Fern boxing up orders, but we don’t see Fern having to take a timed bathroom break. Against the backdrop of a unionizing drive at an Amazon facility in Alabama, and the steady flow of more and more stories about the exploitative conditions working in such facilities, Nomadland certainly deserves to be criticized for going easy on Amazon (one wonders if the filmmaker had to agree to present this somewhat rosy portrait in exchange for being allowed to film there). A similar criticism could be leveled at most of the jobs that Fern is shown working, though it is certainly most glaring in the case of a behemoth like Amazon. Many of these jobs are badly paid and legitimately dangerous, but the film does not fixate on these risks. Nomadland is less overtly political than some might desire, there is a moment when Fern gets angry at a realtor talking about how well he did after the 2008 financial crisis, but this is not a movie in which characters rage against the banks, elected officials, or billionaires. Indeed, government is notable in the film largely for its absence. The aspect of the government that is most visible is the national parks, but even there one sees few park employees other than fellow nomads who have picked up some seasonal employment.

There isn’t a moment in Nomadland where a committed union organizer shows up and lights a fire in Fern’s belly for justice. Nor is there a moment when one of Fern’s fellow nomads hands her a dog-eared copy of Das Kapital and says “you’ve got to read this.” It is not that Nomadland glorifies the jobs that Fern works (they are frequently depicted as exhausting and disgusting), but the film is also not condescending towards these jobs or the people who work them. The film does not portray Fern’s lifestyle, or the jobs she works as glamorous or particularly dignified, but the film also isn’t poverty porn. Could policy changes around employment, wages, housing, disability, healthcare, and social security make meaningful changes in the lives of the people in this film? Certainly. But the nomads depicted in the film are not waiting for politicians, or Jeff Bezos, or crusading journalists, or academics, or people who argue about socialism on Twitter, or filmmakers to save them—this is a film that is largely chronicling people who don’t have the luxury of waiting for things to get better.

It is not that Nomadland is a hopeless, misanthropic, or nihilistic film, but that it argues that you have to find hope where you can. And in the wake of a calamity, regaridng which much of the world has already moved on, the place to find that hope is often amongst your fellow survivors. Nomadland isn’t about improving conditions in steerage, or rearranging the deck chairs, it’s about a societal ship that is already half under water.

Thus, to treat Nomadland as a disaster/post-apocalyptic narrative is to attempt to push back against many of the ridiculous tropes of those genres, recurring elements of which have given many people a warped idea of what happens when disasters strike and the world as we know it ends. Perhaps most importantly, Nomadland demonstrates that the key things for surviving disasters are solidarity, mutual aid, and social cohesion. The social cohesion of the broader society has failed in Nomadland, Fern and her fellows have largely been abandoned—and yet they create new social cohesion with one another. They are a disparate community, but they have created a new convivial culture that shares skills, swaps items, and takes the time to listen. This isn’t an ideal community, but it is still a community. While many of the nomads in the film are portrayed as solitary, they are also shown as understanding that they have to be willing to call upon each other (and to be called upon in turn). These aren’t well-armed loners living in fortified bunkers kitted out in tens of thousands of dollars of fancy tacticool, they are people who have learned that sometimes your van gets a flat and you have to ask a friend for assistance, and people who have learned that when things go wrong a good can opener is more important than expensive night vision goggles.

On another important level, Nomadland captures the way in which the broader society quickly loses interest in disasters. When the storm hits, when the powerplant malfunctions, when the explosion occurs—there are a few days when all eyes are fixed to the occurrence, but eventually Anderson Cooper leaves, and attention shifts back to other things. What Nomadland demonstrates is that the disaster persists after the TV cameras leave. Your world can end, and yet the world can keep going. Insofar as there is a disaster looming in the background of Nomadland it is the 2008 financial crisis, and Nomadland is a reminder that the fallout from that crisis really represented a devastating end for many people. The town from which Fern hails, as is noted in the opening caption of the film, really did turn into a ghost town after the mine closed. And, of course, we need not only think about the financial crisis. Think about Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Sandy, or Hurricane Maria—for a few days, the country watches in shock as helicopters capture images of flooded neighborhoods. But two weeks later who is still paying attention to the survivors? Two years later are we even still thinking about those survivors? As of this writing it has been a week since devastating winter storms hit Texas, but the news cycle (and most of us) have already moved on. In the wake of a disaster, many things will be rebuilt, and one of the common features of disaster films is the good-looking survivors standing atop a hill planning how they’ll rebuild better (a common feature of disaster films is the reestablishment of the heteronormative family unit)—but Nomadland is a testament to those who get left out of that rebuilding.

One of the problems with many disaster/post-apocalyptic works is that they traffic in apocalyptic romanticism: the end of the world is portrayed as oddly desirable. Thus, the cataclysm is treated as the thing that finally wipes away this decadent world and provides the survivors the opportunity to build something new. Or, the apocalypse frees people from dead end jobs and a meaningless life of consumption by making every day about the task of living instead of just consuming. Or, the catastrophe is presented as an opportunity for people to be whoever they think they really are deep down (a zombie killing badass) if only they weren’t so constrained by the strictures of modern life. Or, the destruction of this alienated society will provide a new world in which we can all finally stop staring at social media all day. In fairness, there are some people in Nomadland who extol on the freedom that comes from living in a van (and there is some classic romanticism in the shots of Fern exploring the national parks), but the film does not romanticize the life of the nomads. Their lives are not something to gawk at, but neither are they something to envy. And it certainly does not romanticize the crises that have turned these people into nomads by turning those events into exciting spectacles. Fern and her fellows work hard in a series of bad jobs, they are perpetually one flat tire or engine problem away from destitution, and they harbor no illusions about being the creators of a new world as they desperately try to survive on the bones of the old world. It is a reminder that cataclysms don’t always sweep the board clean, sometimes they just knock a few pieces to the ground where they are forgotten as the game continues.

When Fern attends the desert gathering of fellow nomads, Bob Wells (who really is something of a guru for this community) says:

“The way I see it is that the Titanic is sinking and economic times are changing. And so my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.”

Nomadland is a movie about the lifeboats that get launched when the ship goes down. But it is a reminder that just because a person has made it into a lifeboat does not mean they are close to shore. Better to be in a lifeboat than freezing to death in the frigid waters, but to have narrowly escaped the disaster does not mean that one has already found safety, or that one will find safety.

The world that is portrayed in Nomadland is simultaneously familiar and bizarre, for it is a picture of the world of today (albeit pre-pandemic), but it is also a film that looks at that world from a different perspective. The film makes clear that the end of the world as we know it is not synonymous with the end of the world full stop. It is a film that uncomfortably asks: what if we already live in ruins, and it’s just that most of us haven’t realized it yet? What if we’re on a sinking ship, but most of us are still insisting that the ship can reach its destination? What if the ice on which we’re walking is thinner than we think?

Nomadland is not an advertisement brochure for the nomad lifestyle, it does not romanticize the struggles and sorrows of the woebegone survivors living in their vans. It isn’t a film in which the world ends with a bang, or with a whimper, but is instead a film that shows that the world as you know it can end and yet the world can just keep on going without you.

 

*

Book Recommendation: If you found Nomadland (or this review) interesting, you should really consider reading The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing.

*

 

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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