The Visionary Politics of Nomadland

Chloé Zhao’s film offers a rare depiction of the American working class in the deindustrialized heartland.

At the beginning of Chloé Zhao’s new film Nomadland, we meet Fern, a late middle-aged widow. She once worked in a US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada until the Great Recession drove down the need for drywall and rendered the mine obsolete. And once the factory went, so, too, did the entire town. It became so depopulated that it even lost its zip code. Now, Fern, played by Frances McDormand, sleeps in a rusty van and works a seasonal job with one of the few employers left in the area: an Amazon shipping center. It’s a common choice for fellow nomads like herself, who have adopted transient, houseless lifestyles, travelling the country in search of temporary work. On her lunch break one day, another Amazon worker shows Fern a tattoo on her arm: “Home, is it just a word? Or is it something that you carry within you?”

On the surface, it’s easy to think of Nomadland as a work of ethnography. Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, the film has many of the same subjects playing themselves: Bob Wells, who preaches to nomads about the spiritual dimensions of homelessness; Swankie, a cancer-stricken free spirit with only months left to live; and Linda May, Fern’s caring and soft-spoken best friend. Fern is one of the movie’s few fictional characters.

But Nomadland is much more than an exploration of a unique subculture. It offers a rare and sympathetic vision of what’s happening to the American working class in the deindustrialized heartland. Unlike J.D. Vance’s flawed Hillbilly Elegy, and so many other accounts like it, this film does not blame the victims for their own downward mobility. It doesn’t point to bad habits (drugs and laziness), bad morals (racism and Trumpism), or bad attitudes (toxic masculinity and perverted Christianity). Instead, it shows humble men and women who don’t scapegoat others and who manage to preserve their dignity and, to a large extent, their own personal freedom in the face of systemic forces that are exploiting them.

The backdrop of the entire narrative is a subject familiar to readers of this magazine: the hollowing out of middle America and the growing regional inequality that stems, in large part, from the U.S. economy being concentrated by fewer and fewer corporations and thus in fewer and fewer places. It’s a reality that has left wide swaths of the country, like northwest Nevada, out to dry.

As Phil Longman and Daniel Block have documented, the rise of corporate monopolies since the 1980s has led to a clustering of growth in coastal metro areas and a staggering decline virtually everywhere else in between. And, as Alex MacGillis lays out in his new book Fullfillment: Winning and Losing in OneClick America, Amazon’s dramatic expansion has itself been a driving force behind regional inequality. The e-commerce giant creates high-paying jobs in places like Seattle but destroys jobs in most other parts of the nation while paying its warehouse workers, like Fern, next to nothing. At the same time, it has curried favor with local governments, extracting lucrative tax incentives that come at the expense of local public service. In that stark economic environment, characters like the ones in Nomadland emerge. No wonder they want to seek out the open road.

In an early scene, Fern’s friend Linda—the protagonist of Bruder’s book—encourages her to visit an Arizona desert rendezvous where she meets Wells and a community of nomads. There, she learns the self-sufficiency skills needed to survive—not the least being how to use a bucket as a toilet. She’s also introduced to the ethos behind the counterculture. Wells explains that most Americans “not only accept the tyranny of the dollar, the tyranny of the marketplace,” but that they embrace it. “The way I see it is that the Titanic is sinking and economic times are changing.” Wells says. “And so my goal is to get the lifeboats out and get as many people into the lifeboats as I can.”

The film then follows Fern as she travels the mountain west, working odd summer jobs near the Badlands of South Dakota: She cleans grease off the grill at Wall Drug, she takes up a gig at a beet processing plant. At one point, she meets David, played by David Strathairn, who tries to woo her but can never quite earn her romantic affections. He keeps inviting her to join him at the next spot. Maybe she will, Fern tells him, but won’t commit.

A turning point comes when Fern’s van breaks down. It will cost her thousands of dollars to fix, so she takes a bus to see her sister in California, whose husband works in real estate. Sitting in the backyard, he brags that the housing market is starting to recover from the financial crash. “Seems like real estate always ends up on the upside.” Then, for the first time in the film, Fern releases her pent-up anger and resentment. “I don’t wanna disagree with you, but I have to say I do,” she says. “It’s strange that you encourage people to invest their whole life savings, go into debt, just to buy a house they can’t afford.” In other words, Fern, who has been decidedly restrained throughout the film, finally voices a protest against the unregulated capitalism that destroyed her hometown and created her plight. She says out loud what her actions say even louder. In the next scene, her sister lends her the money, telling her she’s the “bravest and most honest” member of their family.

Afterword, Fern gets the van fixed and drives to the coast to visit David, who has reunited with his family after his grandson’s birth. It’s clear, though, that he’s given up the nomadic life and plans to stay with them permanently when Fern says his van has a flat tire. He hasn’t even noticed.

After a warm and festive Thanksgiving Dinner with David’s family, he invites her to stay, too. She can sleep in a guest house, he tells her; he’s already asked everybody else. The next night, however, the bed is so soft, Fern can barely stand it. She drives off in the morning before anyone is awake.

Just as Fern escapes the cliché of letting the handsome man domesticate her, Zhao’s film avoids the clichés of the formerly middle-class, mostly white Americans she’s depicting. None of them blame Black people or immigrants or the left-wing media for their problems. They simply refuse to play by the rules of an economy that has decimated their old lives.

Many of the central characters are propelled into a nomad existence through their own personal loss. Toward the end, after Fern has completed yet another seasonal stint at an Amazon warehouse, she returns to Wells’ Arizona campsite and speaks in a seminar-like gathering he leads. She tells the group about her close bond with her late husband, who died around the same time the gypsum plant shuttered.  “He loved Empire,” she says. “He loved his work so much. He loved being there. Everybody loved him. So I stayed. Same town, same house. It’s like my dad used to say, ‘What’s remembered lives.’” Then, in a poignant moment, Wells explains that he can relate to her. That day would have been his son’s 33rd birthday, but five years earlier, he committed suicide. “One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye,” he tells Fern. “You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’”

It’s no accident, then, that Fern then goes back to Empire to dispose of the belongings she’s been keeping in a storage unit and visits the old mine and her old house. Her home, at this point, is dilapidated and falling apart. After walking through the inside, she steps onto the front porch overlooking the vast Nevada landscape, with her body silhouetted inside the frame of the doorway. It’s a shot that mimics the final one in John Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers, after John Wayne returns Natalie Wood to the Jorgensen ranch, his journey ending how it started—with him alienated and alone, once again kept out of the community.

Ironically, Wayne’s character, like Wayne himself, embodied the stereotype often associated with the white working class: a terrible racist with retrograde notions of patriotism and manhood. Fern, and the rest of the characters in Nomadland, are the exact opposite. They are people who possess quiet dignity, decency, and stoicism in the face of structural forces grinding them down. They don’t turn to fascism. Rather, they remind us that maybe, just maybe, there is still a democratic future for the country.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the Investigative Editor of the Washington Monthly.