Agnes Varda’s 1985 Vagabond (Sans toi ni loi ) was about a female transient wandering the backroads of France. It wasn’t a political film but a humane examination of an unknowable individual, although a sense of political economy — ideas about property and social convention — plainly came through. Varda’s main interest was the risks dared by a malcontent (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) who rejected social conventions and hit the road as an existential loner. Varda’s nonjudgmental approach contrasts the on-the-road story in Nomadland, a new indie film by director-writer Chloé Zhao, that rips off Vagabond and politicizes the aspects of alienation about which Varda was most discreet. Nomadland shows that contemporary American film culture is unable to view even a private situation without political posturing.
Nomadland’s protagonist Fern (played by Frances McDormand), is a white Nevadan widow who, after losing employment when the local sheetrock plant shuts down, wanders the back roads of gig economy America in her RV. Her latest, temporary job was as an anonymous Amazon worker who fulfills society’s materialist greed.
Is Fern a vagabond, a nomad, a pioneer, or just a hermit? Her bobbed hair looks monastic, as if rejecting sexual attraction, doing penance as she takes us on a tour of American devastation. (“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless,” she says.) She avoids family and domesticity, yet she’s not as compelling as Sandrine Bonnaire was in Varda’s film — she’s just an embodiment of the political self-righteousness of Beijing-born Zhao.
It is unfortunate that McDormand, last seen troweling politicized anger onto the screen in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, plays Fern with such excessive, noble sympathy. McDormand now specializes in high-minded standoffishness, blending in with the pale or sunburnt faces of “real” people. (She urinates on the land just before Zhao flashes the film’s title.) This passive-aggressive sanctimony has become the driving force of crusading filmmakers such as Zhao. Nomadland is part of the current glut of politically correct anti-entertainment.
Group-think reviewers have been showering Nomadland with awards, confusing it with art, because they share Zhao’s perspective. It’s a class phenomenon. While Varda worked in the French New Wave tradition that refreshed the cinematic depiction of human experience, Zhao’s method is patronizing. Her view of a recalcitrant, off-the-grid lifestyle suits media elites who, being distanced from hard work, are aghast at the evidence of individual anti-bourgeois, nonconformist choice.
Looking at Fern honestly might scare these bougies, raising the specter of disapproval, which is now hidden by pity and hypocrisy and triggers their political delusions. Vagabond’s original French title Sans toit ni loi translates as “Without roof or law,” but Zhao takes a less daunting approach and presents Fern’s lifestyle as the fault of capitalism, a social failure that must be blamed on politics.
As Fern traverses the infrastructure of itinerant America, the cast of actors and non-actors combine sentimentality and realism, pioneer conviction and political pathos. One resistor-organizer says, “We not only accept the tyranny of the dollar, the tyranny of the workplace, we embrace it.” He warns, “The Titanic is sinking.” Another nomad sorts out different sizes of latrine buckets and advises, “You have to learn how to take care of your own shit.” All this on-screen peonage feels rather academic given the tyranny of real-life lockdown.
Zhao’s best on-the-road discovery is a young female Morrissey fan wearing tattoos of his songs. She says, “His lyrics are very deep,” referencing “Home Is a Question Mark,” and then she points to the “Rubber Ring” lyric tattoo: “When you’re laughing and dancing and finally living / hear my voice in your head / and think of me kindly.” This is either fortunate for Zhao or disingenuous, because Nomadland shows no evidence that she understands the culture of refusal or the spirit of longing as Morrissey and Varda did.
Instead, there’s a tiresome blandness to the way Zhao reports America’s transformation from a capitalist, post-industrial society back to a roughly feudal, socialist one. With cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao looks at the modern Western landscape with uninviting plainness. Laszlo Kovacs’s road movies (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces) photographed post-Sixties America with awe, respecting its history and transition. Nomadland looks both sociological and touristy; it’s a visual lecture teaching America to pity itself.