How the Best Picture nominee depicts grief, gig employment, and the American heartland.
This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, policy reporter Dylan Scott, and critic at large Emily VanDerWerff talk about Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s drama about a woman grappling with loss and grief while living among a community of “nomads” on the road, loosely based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book.
The emotional impact of Nomadland
Alissa Wilkinson: I feel like there’s so much to talk about with Nomadland (and that, for me, is a hallmark of a worthwhile movie). But I want to start out by saying that the first time I watched it, I thought mostly about this community of nomads that Fern joins and the outline of their lives. It was only on second viewing that I was overwhelmed by the actual story, about a woman who has lost everything — her home, her job, her place in the world, and her beloved husband — just desperately trying to keep it together. So much grief.
But it’s a complicated movie. There are fictional characters living among “real” people, and images that seem to be responding to American iconography — plains, sunsets, mountains, the open road. And of course, there are the questions people have raised about the way the film treats labor and exploitation, which I also want to dig into.
Where do you start with Nomadland? What moved you, interested you, or frustrated you?
Dylan Scott: What struck me most (on my first and only watch so far) was the complexity it granted to this community and the people who are a part of it. It would be very easy for a film like this to fetishize the nomads, to flatten them into some kind of talisman that stands in for … whatever the filmmaker might want to say about America or anything else.
But I think director Chloé Zhao avoids that trap almost entirely. I gather this is kind of her thing. (I didn’t see the 2017 film The Rider, despite the buzz at the time, and I am now filled with regret.) We see the many different paths that bring people to nomadic life. You have somebody like Bob Wells, for whom this lifestyle seems like a calling. In his big monologue, he describes how he has left the system that ensnares most of us — capitalism, basically — and tried to create something new for himself and others. On the other end of the spectrum, you have David Strathairn’s character, Dave. By the end of the movie, he is ready to live a more normal life, in a house, with his son and his family. He is not a natural nomad.
And then you have Fern, whom I see as caught in the middle. Clearly, it was not part of her plan to live this way. She is a victim of industrial collapse and personal tragedy. And yet, she has clearly found something — something in herself — while living self-sufficiently on the road. She struggles to leave it behind; in the climatic moment of Nomadland, a film that is not really narratively driven, she declines Dave’s invitation to join him at his home permanently. She is compelled to keep wandering, and even she may not be able to adequately explain why.
There is pain, there is joy, there is serenity, there is struggle. I’m curious to hear more from both of you on any frustrations you have with the film — and I think there are some nits to pick — but, for me, I can’t remember many recent films that possess such extraordinary humanity.
Emily VanDerWerff: Evidently, this is my year of disagreeing with everybody about every movie. I think Nomadland is good enough that I get irritated by folks who think it’s pro-Amazon propaganda, but I also can’t really get on board with it as a great film. I think it’s an amazing character study of a woman who’s lost everything, a pretty good docudrama about the life of the nomads, and an almost horrible political statement about … something? It’s never clear what, even though it’s obvious the movie has a political point. At its best and its worst, it feels like Frances McDormand being airlifted into a story about visiting a diner in Trump country. I spent most of it being profoundly moved and wishing I was watching Andrea Arnold’s similar (much, much better) 2016 film American Honey.
My feelings about Nomadland are so conflicted that once it was over, I said to my wife that I wasn’t sure if I hated it, and then the next day, promptly told her I was all in on it, before returning to being more troubled by it. My guess is I will end up somewhere in the “very good movie” range when all is said and done, but I feel supremely in flux right now.
What colors my opinion of Chloé Zhao’s movies — I liked but didn’t love The Rider — is that I grew up in the part of the country she has made the center of most of her work so far. (I have spent an inordinate amount of time at Wall Drug.) She is superb at capturing how that part of the country feels about itself — a rugged, romantic individualism full of cowboy myth and rough-and-ready ideals. But I think she is sometimes too unwilling to puncture that myth, for whatever reason.
To be clear, she shouldn’t have to! Making a movie that romanticizes a certain way of life is absolutely a valid, often beautiful artistic choice. But the naturalism of Zhao’s approach — shooting interviews in a faux-documentary style, using handheld cameras, staying close on Fern’s point of view to enhance our connection with her — clashes with Nomadland’s overall outlook. It’s like the movie is suggesting we’re getting at least some version of the truth, instead of a glossy look at a world that probably isn’t quite this glossy.
(Sidebar: Is it weird that I couldn’t stop thinking about how white this movie is? I don’t know that Nomadland needed to comment on this aspect of nomadic life in America, but the longer I thought about the movie, the more I struggled to detach from its romanticism. How does this movie change if Alfre Woodard — to name another woman who might have played Fern beautifully — is at its center?)
At least for me, the tension between Nomadland’s naturalistic aesthetics and romantic themes creates a sense that the movie believes it’s presenting the nomads as they truly are — pioneers in a long American tradition, as one character describes it. And the occasional scenes where nomads talk about why they’ve chosen this way of life, shot in vérité-esque close-ups with occasional cutaways to McDormand nodding solemnly are so obviously stitched together from various pieces of filming that I found it distracting. (The late sequence with Bob talking about losing his son felt particularly egregious in this regard, and it took me out of a pivotal moment in the film by making me wonder about the ethics of getting this man to share his extremely private trauma onscreen in a movie that is ultimately fictional.)
Yet if you take five steps into the worlds depicted in this movie, you’ll find plenty of folks whose rugged and romantic individualism has curdled into something far more bitter and even dangerous. I don’t think it’s Nomadland’s responsibility to present this side of its story, but when coupled with, say, the matter-of-fact presentation of Amazon as another place to work (which for Fern it would be!), you end up with a film that is confined to an extremely thin cross-section of a bunch of complicated topics.
The worst thing about the film’s limited perspective is that it honestly might be effective. The more I am able to think about this movie as Fern’s story, the more I’m able to appreciate the ways in which it is about loss and about people who won’t look at their own losses. But the movie is trying to cover more ground than that, and in the moments when it reaches beyond its protagonist, it falls apart for me, just a little bit.
At least that’s how I feel today. Come back to me tomorrow.
What about Nomadland’s handling of Amazon and the gig economy?
Alissa: So, let’s discuss the Amazon element. How do you feel about the film’s handling of Fern’s employment situation, and specifically, the seeming neutrality of its handling of Amazon? Early in Nomadland, Fern works as part of Amazon’s “CamperForce” temporary workforce during the holiday season, and the film clearly received permission to shoot at an Amazon warehouse. But it remains largely neutral on the ethics of Amazon’s treatment of gig employees — Fern seems to like the job well enough. And Nomadland steers away from making overt statements about the gig economy and the way it can exploit low-wage workers more broadly. That choice is one of the things people are talking about this Oscar season.
For my part, I’ll say this: Nomadland as a whole feels like such a blindingly huge critique of what America does to people who aren’t particularly well-off when they reach an age we used to call “retirement age” that I read everything through that lens. From the first, when Fern is loading her belongings into storage and crying as she bids someone farewell, I was all-in on that reference frame. When the Amazon season is over and everyone drives away, and there’s no commitment to the workers, that was the first big moment where I felt Fern’s loss as linked to her employment (or lack thereof).
Granted, I am definitely seeing this partly through the eyes of someone who has many relatives (including a mother who’s been a widow for 15 years) who are either in Fern’s position or could, with one medical emergency, find themselves there very easily. I definitely think there are different ways to come at it. What did you think?
Dylan: I find this to be a thorny issue to untangle. On the one hand, I see why people might wish the film treated Amazon with something more than ambivalence, given its influence and omnipresence in the real world. If you are going to bring Amazon into your story, isn’t it incumbent on you to find something to say about it?
On the other hand, part of what I appreciate about Nomadland is that it resists being prescriptive. I, like you, Alissa, do think the film has a clear and appropriately grim perspective on American capitalism and how that system treats people who are regarded as disposable. And that inhumanity extends far, far beyond Amazon, even if Amazon and the conditions of its workforce have become a useful avatar in our political debates for describing and condemning these structural problems.
In other words, I don’t know that Nomadland needs to tell me Amazon is bad. And I don’t think the film is under any illusions or nurtures a false sense of romanticism about the life that Fern and many of the other nomads lead. I think Chloé Zhao does find something to admire in their self-sufficiency — and we could debate whether that alone introduces an uncomfortable embrace of individualism to the film’s worldview — but I also think she sees the cost, the grief, and the pain that undergirds that life.
The film ends, as Emily points out, by exploring grief, a theme that had been lurking from the very first frames but only comes into focus in the last ones. But there is no closure, only more searching. We’ve all dealt with a lot of grief in this last year, and something about this movie’s take on it rang true to me.
Emily: I keep finding myself thinking about whether Nomadland would be the Best Picture frontrunner in any other year. It seems almost spookily timed to deal with the many emotions we’ve had in the past year, from frustration with Amazon’s omnipresence to deep-seated grief at all we’ve lost, from a real desire to just leave our houses and go somewhere to an increasing feeling that nobody will be there to take care of us if we do. If life had continued as normal in 2020, would this movie have felt so cathartic? Maybe! But it’s a very weird Oscar frontrunner, I think, and that likely has something to do with how accidentally timely it is.
Judging Nomadland by its seeming refusal to take a stance on Amazon is a bit of a false front, I think. The portrayal of the company as just another horrible job Fern undertakes to keep her nomadic lifestyle running is in keeping with the movie’s general message and theme, so judging it solely on the fact that it doesn’t condemn the corporation is misguided, I would argue.
But the movie also keeps pointing to the ways that America has failed people like Fern, asking, “Well, isn’t this interesting?” It doesn’t seem to have much else to say. And when you couple that attitude with the fact that Zhao was granted permission to shoot in an Amazon warehouse (a notoriously locked-down space, which journalists have had to infiltrate in order to report on it), it’s easier to come away with an impression that the movie is functioning as propaganda, more or less. “This horrible situation is just the way things are. Too bad. Isn’t the life of a vagabond romantic?” I find that impression mistaken, but I understand why people leap to it. It feels a little too much like the movie having its cake, eating it too, then telling you that it had a very nice slice of cake.
I appreciate that Nomadland wants to take a detached view of its protagonist and to ask us to question both her motivations and a system that would fail her so dramatically. And in a year when the system failed a lot of us dramatically, perhaps we’re better poised to do just that. But this is also a year of character studies that try to simultaneously function as political missives (see also: Promising Young Woman, and Mank, sort of), and Nomadland is so much better as a character study that it becomes doubly frustrating when its political aspect asks you to fill in the blanks.
I have a theory that movies like this work best when either the character study half or the political half drills down into something specific and tangible. Nomadland keeps both sides of that equation dreamy and ethereal, and I think that’s why I find it a little frustrating. I wouldn’t need it to be more direct about capitalism if it was less evasive with Fern, and vice versa. As it stands, it’s a movie about something failing somebody, and then it all ends with a vague justification of, “Well, we’re all sad.”
Weirdly, I’m talking myself into liking this movie a lot more. You can probably tell, huh?
What to watch and read after you’ve seen Nomadland
Alissa: That’s what the best movies do!
So, given all we’ve said about Nomadland — if someone loved it, or didn’t love but liked the idea of it, what else might you tell them to read, watch, or experience?
Dylan: You know, it’s funny you should ask, because I was just reminded yesterday of the TV show Rectify and as soon as you asked that question, Rectify was the first thing I thought of. It’s more the form than the content: That show has aching humanity, subtle character work, and lyrical filmmaking that reminds me of Nomadland at its best. And I could stretch to connect Nomadland with Rectify’s story and setting, too — people living on the edge of society, haunted by the past, where the whole world seems expressed in their interpersonal drama.
I would also recommend a read: Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth. It’s nonfiction and advances a theory of the frontier that explains both the particularly ruthless version of American capitalism and how the West served as an outlet for domestic racial tensions. Its revisionist view of Manifest Destiny feels like a more polemic cousin to Nomadland.
Emily: The obvious answer is The Rider. I have my issues with Zhao’s 2018 film, but at its best, it’s a beautiful, intricately observed film about people who are trying to scrape a life together out in the great American empty.
I would also recommend the entire filmography of director Kelly Reichardt, but particularly her devastating 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, which follows another nomadic woman traveling in search of work (this one played by Michelle Williams, in one of her best performances) but also features a dog. It is, I should warn you, deeply sad, but if you’re in the mood for that, it’s also deeply moving. (She also directed the heavily acclaimed 2020 film First Cow, which I still haven’t seen.)
Finally, just watch American Honey. It does just about everything Nomadland sets out to do, and it does it better, I would argue. At the very least we can debate which movie is the better tale of American poverty.
Alissa: These suggestions are all terrific. I might also add the recent Netflix film Concrete Cowboy, which touches on some of the same themes and images, mixes “real” people in among the fictional characters, and focuses on the Black urban cowboys of Philadelphia.
And, I don’t know why this flew under the radar, but there’s actually a 16-minute documentary called Camperforce, made by the author of Nomadland’s source material, Jessica Bruder, and one of my favorite filmmakers, Brett Story. You can watch Camperforce here, and if you’ve seen Nomadland, you should.
Nomadland is streaming on Hulu. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.
Author: Alissa Wilkinson