Certain metaphors structure the American imagination. The house with the white picket fence, supposedly everyone’s dream. The cowboy, setting out alone across the landscape, accompanied only by his faithful horse and his ten-gallon hat. The pioneers, rolling in rickety wagons across the prairie with all of their earthly possessions, headed for a better life. The hard-working, self-made man.
Each of these images stands in for an ostensibly American value: adventure, courage, an entrepreneurial spirit, bootstrap-tugging, hope that something better will always be just beyond the horizon. The idea that the field is level and bounteous to all who are willing to work — and, conversely, that the remedy for tough times is work.
Nomadland evokes and rewrites these cultural themes by telling its own story, one that counters the metaphors with reality. Based in part on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and written and directed by Chloé Zhao, it’s a piercing look into a country that’s becoming less and less inhabitable for its older men and women, and more stingy about who gets to dream. And, fundamentally, it’s a poignant portrait of a broken heart.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, one of a growing number of American seniors who find themselves, at the end of a long life of working hard, with very little to show for it. Text at the beginning of the film tells us that in 2011, faced with a declining demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut its plant in Empire, Nevada, which had been a company town for 88 years. Within six months, the town was decimated — so thoroughly that its zip code was entirely discontinued.
That’s all true, and many of the people who populate Nomadland are real, too. It’s not a documentary, but it’s not really fiction, either. Nearly everyone in the film is playing themselves. When US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, 95 jobs evaporated. The company closed the town and told the workers who had lived there that they had to leave, since the company owned the houses, too. At one point, the place had an airport, a day care facility, a public pool, a golf course. By mid-2011, it was a ghost town.
Left with no option but to leave, Fern buys a large van, puts her things into storage, and takes off down the winding road to an Amazon warehouse. She and other seasonal workers will live in their vehicles in an RV park and pack boxes during the busy holiday season as part of the company’s CamperForce program. When it’s over, they move on to the next job.
Fern’s friend Linda May tips her off to an annual gathering of “nomads,” as the itinerant older seasonal workers call themselves. It’s called the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” led by Bob Wells, who through his YouTube channel and other means has created a network of folks like Fern, who live in their vehicles (Wells is a self-described “vandweller”) and move from place to place. At the gathering, they break bread together, trade things they don’t need anymore, and share techniques you need to know if you’re living out of your car or van. How to protect yourself. How to park discreetly in a city. How to best use a bucket as your toilet. They don’t complain about what they don’t have; they focus on their freedom from the “tyranny of the dollar.”
Thinking of this lifestyle as “freedom” — there’s another American ideal — might take a little bit of the sting out of it for the folks who, like Fern, did not exactly make the choice to have almost no money. One woman at the Rendezvous talks about spending her entire life working and raising her children, only to discover when she reached her 60s that her Social Security benefit was a whopping $550 a month. Fern knows hers won’t be enough to live on and seeks steady work, but there’s simply no steady work to be had. Whether or not she wants a home, her only choice is to live the nomad life.
The people around her have similar backstories; in the film, they’re played mostly by people describing their actual lived experience. The hybrid fiction-nonfiction form of storytelling (which Zhao last used in her 2017 film The Rider) lets the nomad community tell its own story in the midst of Fern’s, and mixes the sorrow and the joy with authenticity and hard-won understanding.
It’s not all nonfiction, though; at the Rendezvous, Fern also meets Dave (David Strathairn), and she keeps bumping into him in her travels. They strike up a friendship. You start to think they might strike up a romance. But this is not the kind of film that fulfills expectations, and Fern is not the kind of woman who does, either.
Nomadland is so understated, so sensitively crafted, that it wasn’t until my second viewing that I understood something vital: It’s mostly a movie about mourning and grief and loss. Fern’s beloved husband died before Empire did. She has not fully processed that grief, nor the cascade of losses that followed. At the Rendezvous, Bob reminds Fern — who is tough and determined and self-sufficient, just like a cowboy — that she has lost her husband, her town, her “village,” her friends. “That kind of loss is never easy,” he says.
All of the nomads have experienced some sort of loss. Fern’s is acute, and McDormand keeps it sewn tight into her features. Fern smiles and laughs, and she’s playful; she is kind to the people she meets, and she seems, on the surface, to be happy alone. But her aloneness is a shield against caring too much, against suffering loss again. When you lose someone, it’s much easier to shut down and never let anyone else in.
The landscapes against which Fern’s story takes place are breathtaking and enormous — the cavernous emptiness and striking peaks and sunsets of the American West. It’s a visual language that most often shows up in Westerns, often to emphasize the smallness of the human figures against the immenseness of the possibility. In Nomadland, the same gorgeous landscapes emphasize the chest-pinching loneliness of a life like Fern’s.
Late in the movie, Fern’s sister, feeling the need to defend her sibling against a pair of real estate agents who seem offended at Fern’s suggestion that homeownership is not all it’s cracked up to be, says she thinks that what the nomads are doing is like the pioneers — that they’re “part of an American tradition.” Fern’s face tightens just a little.
Because, yes, she is part of an American tradition. She is proud of her self-sufficiency, her strength, the community that she is slowly building. But she is also wounded and grieving the loss of a dream, a community she once loved that disappeared because it was no longer profitable to a big company. That’s an American tradition, too. So is working hard your whole life only to discover that there’s no more work for you, and that you can’t afford to live, either. That the American Dream isn’t for everyone.
Nomadland is achingly beautiful and sad, a profound work of empathy from Zhao. It’s a true elegy, a lament for the dead, a yearning for the lost. There’s no hint of sentimentality in Fern or in Nomadland — only a need to remember and to keep living. But you can detect a hint of anger in the film at a country that, as Bob puts it at the Rendezvous, could treat its working-class senior citizens like “workhorses,” urged to labor hard, then simply used up and put out to pasture. That they find community with one another is necessary and good. But it doesn’t erase the great tragedy that too often sends them out on the road in the first place.
Nomadland is playing in select theaters and streaming on Hulu.