Nomadland is a Modern Western for our Times

Nomadland is a poem of a film.

Viewers set sail amid the vast majesty of the American West aboard Van Halen, an intrepid vessel that doubles as a cramped home for Fern, the film’s anti-hero of sorts, portrayed by Frances McDormand with all the quiet, flinty resolve of a 19th century pioneer.

Nomadland is a morality tale framed by the wide-open vistas of the American West and is evocative (sans guns and shootouts) of great films of the western genre like High Noon and The Searchers. Nomadland can be seen now on a number of streaming platforms.

Nomadland is that rare work of art that transports its passengers on an immersive journey. It is a film determined to tell its story at its own unhurried pace, letting it unfold with its own alluring rhythms, haunting imagery, visual metaphors, and dramatic landscapes that stretch for miles. For in Nomadland, as the name suggests, the road ahead is long and meandering. It is a place where both inner and outer journeys intertwine, offering weary travelers the time and space to contemplate their past, wrestle with their grief, come to terms with their sorrow, let go of a loss, and find the courage and grit to make it to the next horizon.

The film begins in the unfortunately named hamlet of Empire, NV, which is anything but. The remote, high-desert outpost was once a small, busy, company mining town owned lock-stock-and-barrel by the U.S. Gypsum Corporation, a distant overlord based in metropolitan Chicago, whose executives are far removed culturally and geographically from the concerns and going-ons of a hardscrabble people located over 100 miles from any city of discernable size. USG’s operation in Empire involved the mining and processing of gypsum, a chalky mineral used primarily in the manufacture of drywall, an essential component of nearly every home built today in America. Empire, such as it was with a population of about 700, fairly bustled from its post-war rise in 1948, which was coincident with the advent of production homebuilding, until the 2008 collapse of the American housing industry and subsequent Great Recession. Economic upheaval caused U.S. Gypsum to cease its Nevada mining operations and shutter the town, triggering Empire’s collapse.

The story joins Fern sometime in 2010, she having been seemingly spit out upon the movie’s shores as the shipwrecked survivor of an economic maelstrom. Freshly traumatized, Fern has lost everything — her husband, who has just passed, her job, her home, her friends, her community, her belongings, her money — pretty much all that she has ever known for the past forty or so years.

And just as it was in the pioneer days, the West of Nomadland is an unforgiving place. Fern quickly finds that she has committed a great sin, and that is to be an aging woman with outdated skills in a Darwinian, hyper-capitalist land.

But Fern is a survivor. And since there is no longer a place for her in Empire, she sets out as the intrepid captain of Van Halen, voyaging along the many two-lane ribbons of asphalt that stretch to considerable horizons, connecting constellations of small towns that have been largely forgotten and left behind by megatropolises that now drive the economic engines propelling America forward in the 21st century.

Full of grit and determination, Fern sets out in search of human basics: safety, security, companionship, connection and a sense of belonging.

Her first stop is an Amazon warehouse and distribution center, located somewhere in rural Nevada and so disembodied from any sense of place that its only housing is an RV park for its transient workforce.

Here, Fern encounters one of the central themes of Nomadland, and that is the terrible toll that remote, ever-dominant corporations are taking upon the lives of a growing strata of American people. Like the adults in A Charlie Brown Christmas, these corporations are unseen and unheard. But their presence in the film can be felt everywhere. Amazon’s cavernous warehouse — filmed in an actual Amazon cavernous warehouse — hums with efficiency, and is particularly busy during the Christmas rush. Humans work slavishly aside their tireless, mechanized counterparts that include non-stop conveyer belts, forklifts, robotic sorters, touchscreens and digital commands. Concrete walls are windowless. Fluorescent light blares down from high ceilings. There is no sense of circadian time, of whether it’s night or day, nor is there a need for it. We are operating on 24/7 machine time. Human necessities like bathrooms breaks, meal time, conversation, and laughter are subservient to the primacy of machines. Here, humans are trusted with only the most menial of tasks. This is no place for independent thinking, creativity or artistry. It is a worksite not only devoid of any sense of place or time, but also devoid of soul.

The author, back in the day, hunting chukar in the wide-open spaces of the Smoke Creek Range of Northern Nevada, not far from Empire, where the story of Nomadland begins.

But boom-and-bust capitalism has long been the story of the Western U.S. I grew up for a short time in Winnemucca, NV, not far from Empire, where my father Ben Collins was a manager for the BLM. He was charged with overseeing federal lands and natural resources in the Black Rock Desert and the ecologically sensitive playa where USG Corporation mined its gypsum and that is now globally famous as the site of the annual Burning Man festival. His nickname then was Black Rock Benny. My great-grandfather, also named Ben Collins struck gold in 1909 in a remote canyon near the Idaho-Nevada border and triggered the last major gold rush in the United States in a place called Jarbidge. The wealth from that discovery flowed not to my family tree, but eventually to a large mining conglomerate belonging to titanic New York capitalist Solomon Guggenheim. So as I, or just about any Westerner, could tell you, capitalistic success has always been ephemeral here. The hopes, dreams and hubris of previous generations are revealed in the names of the region’s withered towns: Empire, Ruby Hill, Goldfield, Eureka. Perhaps the American Dream, in spite of lyric and song about spacious skies and purple mountains majesty, has always been tenuous and just out of reach for most in this part of the country.

Nomads Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn) don’t have much except for spectacular views of public lands throughout the American West.

And though Fern and the troupes of nomads she meets out on the road may have been forsaken by the American Dream, they are nevertheless determined to find solace in a country they still love, unrequited though that love may be. And what a country it is — at least the open, still-public swaths the corporations have yet to get their hooks into. And roam the nomads do. From the snow-covered ranges of the Great Basin to the saguaro plateaus of Arizona to the badlands of the Dakotas to the ancient redwood forests of the Pacific Coast, Fern and her tribe spend much time communing with nature and finding spirituality and personal healing in the spectacular panoramas captured by Director Chloe Zhao, who isn’t shy about making Western vistas a central character of the film. The audience, too, is lavished with the region’s aching beauty. The nomads might not have much, but at least they have this.

And yet again there is irony in these wide-open spaces. The glory of America’s spacious skies and purple mountains majesty stands in stark contrast to the cramped, claustrophobic confines of van life. Further, as the pioneers who came before in covered wagons knew, nature here, though beautiful, can be deadly. The nomads operate largely without safety nets, where a flat tire, a snowstorm, a health crisis, or a blown engine could mean personal calamity or even death.

Bob Wilson, a real-life nomad who has been holding a Rubber Tramp Rendezvous near Quartzite, AZ, annually since 2010, understands this. He serves as the nomads’ tribal leader and provides the film with a modicum of moral clarity. The rendezvous itself, of course, is a two-centuries-old Western tradition, harkening to rendezvouses by French fur trappers held annually in places like Jackson Hole, WY –gatherings where these Europeans who first opened the West would trade supplies, sell goods, exchange stories, heal wounds, give advice and gain a sense of community.

“We work horses (who have been put out to pasture) have to gather and take care of each other,” Wilson says. “And that’s what this is all about. 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.”

Frances McDormand plays Nomadland’s central character Fern with the quiet, flinty resolve of a 19th century pioneer, who soon discovers she has committed the great sin of being an aging woman with outdated skills in a Darwinian, hyper-capitalist land.

But the greatest tragedy of Nomadland comes from the heartbreak of broken vows. Fern and her tribe are fiercely loyal. They’ve been loyal to their spouses, families, communities, careers, companies and country. But economic turbulence has frayed those ties that have bound them all these decades. And now that they’ve been set adrift, it becomes apparent that the country they’ve pledged allegiance to and have always loved, doesn’t, in fact, love them back.

That loyalty is put on display during a conversation Fern has at a South Dakota RV park with Carol, again played by a real-life nomad:

Carol: “I see that you have this ring. Are you married?
Fern: “I am, but my husband died.”
Carol: “And so …”
Fern: “I’m not gonna take that off.”
Carol: “That ring is a circle, and it never ends. And that means that your love never ends. And you may not be able to take it off, if you tried.”
Fern: “I don’t think I can.”

And like her devotion to her deceased husband, Fern remains devoted to America. She was born American, has lived American, and will surely die American. It’s a circle she couldn’t break if she tried. And though their American Dreams have been dashed, Fern and the nomads do what nomads do, sail on like “boats against the current borne ceaselessly into the past.”

Craig K. Collins is a San Diego-based writer and the author of Thunder in the Mountains(Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair(Lyons Press, 2016). He has a novel due out in 2021. Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audiobook.

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Craig K. Collins

Craig K. Collins

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Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.