The Female Vagrant
Nomadland, Chloé Zhao's Wordworthian film
Frances McDormand in Nomadland (courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)
I came into Nomadland primed to love it. I loved director Chloé Zhao’s last feature, The Rider, and I’m a fan more generally of films that move along the border between documentary and fictional narrative, using non-actors in crucial roles and interviews with real people alongside staged scenes. Debra Granik’s recent film, Leave no Trace and Gus Van Sant’s indie classic, My Own Private Idaho, are two films I love that could live alongside Zhao’s work in this regard.
But while I did appreciate the film, and would definitely encourage experiencing it, it didn’t quite land for me the way I think it was supposed to. I’m going to use this space to try to figure out why that is.
Nomadland appears, at the start, to be a film about the dislocations of the Great Recession. Frances McDormand’s character, Fern, has lost her home when the town of Empire, Nevada, where she had lived for decades with her now-dead husband, ceased to exist. How can a town simply cease to exist in a matter of months? Well, when it’s a company town largely owned by US Gypsum, and the company closes the town’s plant because of lack of demand for their product, and evicts its former employees and their widowed spouses from the company-owned housing in which they lived, it’s entirely possible. Indeed, it’s what happened in 2011, in the actual town of Empire, and Fern’s destitution opens the film on a note of searing indictment of a society that would allow such things to happen.
Having lost her house, and with no means to acquire another, Fern uses her meager savings to buy an old van, outfit it with a platform bed, a one-burner stove, and a variety of keepsakes of her old life — and takes to the road. She first finds seasonal work in an Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush; later in the summer months, she works cleaning the bathrooms and picking up trash at national parks. The parks are gorgeous, and the film lingers on their beauty and on Fern’s appreciation of the landscape, hiking and swimming; even the lots where Fern parks her van are made glorious by the vastness of the western sky at sunset. Fern begins to form a kind of community as well. Her first new friend, Linda May, who she meets at the warehouse, turns her on to The Rendezvous, an annual gathering of modern-day “nomads” run by Bob Wells. There she meets other fellow wanderers on the roads like Swankie, who teaches her some of the tricks of surviving on the road, and Dave, played by David Strathairn, who takes an immediate shine to Fern, and, in intermittent encounters down the road, spends the rest of the film trying unsuccessfully to woo her.
I note the last actor’s name because the other three roles I mention are played by non-actors — indeed, they are played by the people themselves as, essentially, themselves. (Here is the real-life Bob Wells’s Youtube channel.) It is through them, their performances and their testimony, that we get a visceral sense of who these people are, the characteristics of their tribe. My favorite time in the film was spent with these people. But I think that turned out to be part of the problem.
Even before the turn in the film’s plot that transforms our understanding of Fern’s situation, I was aware that there was something different about Fern. That something different, I thought, was that she was played by Frances McDormand, and not by someone who actually lives out of a van. McDormand is a phenomenal actress, capable of incredibly subtle performance, and that’s precisely what she delivers in this film. But next to the artlessness of the non-actors, I couldn’t shake the awareness that it was a performance. All her subtleties felt like forms of distancing, ways in which she was separating herself from people who were simply more direct, even when they reveal things long kept hidden.
As it turns out, Fern does have things she’s hiding — specifically, that she has a family, a sister who lives a perfectly prosperous suburban married life, and who would be happy to house her. It’s easy to understand how pride might stand in the way of accepting any such offer, but there’s more at play. As we learn from that sister, Fern turned away from the family many years ago, to marry a man she barely knew, to move to a town in the middle of nowhere. It was an abandonment that hurt, a loss the sister suffered from precisely because Fern’s independence of mind was something she needed in her life, and Fern accepts that indictment, saying, “that one’s on me.”
Dave isn’t actually hiding anything; it’s obvious from the first moment we meet him that there’s something different about him, and what’s different is that he’s a tourist. His van is in much better shape than the others we see, and he has kids, who are ready and willing to take him in. When, late in the film, Fern goes to visit him, that’s who he’s living with, and it’s a bucolic life they lead. He asks Fern, finally, to join him, and she considers it, but she can’t sleep under a roof, and flees, in her van, without saying goodbye.
What is that refusal about? On one level, it’s about fidelity to her late husband and their life together. Fern makes it clear earlier in the film that one reason she didn’t leave Empire after her husband died is that she couldn’t leave town without feeling she was leaving him. Bob, the organizer of The Rendezvous, zeroes in on this loss, and connects it to his own loss of his son, to suicide. There’s a sense that all these wandering souls are restless for reasons beyond the harsh economics that deny them a roof to return to, or access to healthcare. But whatever drove Fern out was there before her marriage, because that marriage itself was part of an escape plan, as her sister says and Fern does not deny.
To me, though, that refusal felt like a meta-comment on the making of the film itself. Fern feels different from these other lost souls, because she’s being played by McDormand, and whatever Fern is, McDormand is a kind of tourist, like the character Dave. Her rejection of him felt like a rejection of the comforts of narrative, the comforts of a character arc. But who is doing the rejecting in that case? Fern? McDormand? Zhao? And if the last, why?
The relationship of artist to subject is a fraught one, and nowhere more so than when the subject is definitively an outsider to the artist’s experience. Zhao’s relationship to her subjects here is very much akin to Wordsworth’s relationship to the homeless people who appear in poems like “The Female Vagrant” or “The Old Cumberland Beggar.” Those homeless subjects really matter to Wordsworth; they are not mere symbols of abstract humanity, but his poems, nonetheless, are inevitably less about them than about what they mean to him. Relatedly, his poems have a political edge, but that edge cuts both ways — and Zhao’s film feels very much the same which, in me, provokes a similar ambivalence.
“The Female Vagrant” purports to be an “artless tale” of unjust impoverishment and loss — the homeless woman’s father run off his land when he refuses to sell to a wealthy property owner who buys up all the neighboring cottages — but of course it isn’t artless at all, but told through Wordsworth’s consummate artistry to provoke precisely the feelings of indignation that it does. This is precisely what we feel at the beginning of Nomadland. “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” by contrast, is among other things a brief on behalf of wandering beggars, not a justification that they are reduced to such need but a justification of their existence as such, living precisely that life, as both a spur to good in others via almsgiving and as a valid mode of existence.
The peroration that the latter poem rises to by its conclusion ought to take one’s breath away, and not only because of the artistry of the language:
May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY,
Make him a captive!--for that pent-up din,
Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air,
Be his the natural silence of old age!
Let him be free of mountain solitudes;
And have around him, whether heard or not,
The pleasant melody of woodland birds.
Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now
Been doomed so long to settle upon earth
That not without some effort they behold
The countenance of the horizontal sun,
Rising or setting, let the light at least
Find a free entrance to their languid orbs.
And let him, where and when he will, sit down
Beneath the trees, or on a grassy bank
Of highway side, and with the little birds
Share his chance-gathered meal; and, finally,
As in the eye of Nature he has lived,
So in the eye of Nature let him die!
This is strong stuff — but it is hard not to wonder who Wordsworth is speaking for. Is this what the old Cumberland beggar wishes? Or is this what Wordsworth wishes because he needs him, needs to be able to partake vicariously of precisely this freedom, needs to understand it as the necessary endpoint on a continuum where his own lengthy walks are an escape that never ultimately risks security. That’s the question I can’t help asking Zhao as well, and I ask it precisely because she chose to tie her investigation of these very real people and their lives with this fictional story played by a great professional actress, with the latter serving very artfully as the synecdoche and interpretive lens through which we come to understand the former.
At the end of Nomadland, Fern returns to Empire, gives away all the stuff from her old house that she had in storage, and goes back to her now-abandoned house, a nondescript tract as she herself accurately described it earlier in the film, but backing on the open desert. That open emptiness is what she says she loved about that place, and, if she truly is houseless but not homeless, that open emptiness now her true and only home.
Once again, it’s strong stuff. I wish I were sure that it is what Fern felt — or would feel, were she real.