When asked about her house in Empire, Nevada, Fern answered that her backyard looked out into open space: “It was just desert.” That was what she loved about her home, that “there was nothing in our way.” Classic westerns speak to loneliness through wide-angled shots that dwarf actors in their surroundings. The wide-angled shots of Nomadland turn the classic western on its head. The vast expanses of the 21st century are no longer lonely; instead, they are necessary to give actors room to grow. Nomadland reclaims this vastness as freedom.
Directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland is based on the nonfiction book by the same name. The book's subtitle, Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, provides rational context to explain Fern’s journey through the American West. The movie begins with the closure of the Gypsum Mine in Empire, Nevada, a company town that collapsed after the 2008 recession. Like many retirement-aged citizens, Fern resorts to living in her van to make ends meet. She works at an Amazon fulfillment center during the holidays and takes odd jobs during the summer. This sense of impermanence is a common story in the modern American workforce. With the rise of the gig economy, well-paying blue-collar jobs are hard to come by.
Nomadland speaks to this impermanence through genre exploration. Neither a documentary nor a western, Nomadland ties the rational to the emotional, giving the viewer a psychological understanding of the modern American workforce.
This constant state of flux is characterized by the group Fern joins, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR). This nomadic commune is led by Bob Wells, a self-described "vandweller" in Quartzsite, Arizona. Despite the diverse backgrounds of its members, the RTR is united under the label of “nomad.” There is a sense of empowerment in this word — the members are travelers, no longer defined by the negative connotation of homelessness. Although most members of the RTR live in vans because they lost their homes during the recession, the term “nomad” gives them a choice. They, not the banks, chose this lifestyle.
While economic conditions pushed Fern to adopt a nomadic lifestyle, her true quest for survival lies in the mourning of her late husband. Initially, Fern tried to stay in Empire amidst the open space of the Nevada high desert. However, a harsh winter, symbolic of her grief, pushed her to migrate south.
This migration is hidden as Fern is rarely seen driving her van, making her van a home, not just a mode of transportation. This also drives the plot as she seemingly reaches her new destinations through emotional will and not physical movement. The lack of movement creates a sense of constant presence, the eternal “now” that the landscape provides. Fern seems to relish in this presence, shown through her explorations of the Badlands and the Pacific Northwest. She is pictured bathing naked and smiling amidst the harsh waves.
Emblematic of her grieving process, she speaks little, and her supporting characters speak even less. This lack of communication can be explained through the breakdown of nuclear housing in America. Nuclear housing, influenced by the enlightenment ideals of self-determination, meant that community only involved a person's immediate family. Because nuclear housing is no longer a sustainable living option for many Americans, new communities characterized by collective action are necessary for survival. The lack of communication between characters explains this cultural transition, as the community in Nomadland is formed through the collective trauma of home loss. With not much to say, the members are left with only the ability to nod in understanding. This nod is the symbolic end of the American Dream.
Fern is able to find this understanding towards the end of the movie through speaking to Bob for the last time. He is the first person she truly opens up to about the death of her husband. For Fern, losing Empire was not just about losing her home. As she said to Bob, “If I left, it would have been like he never existed.” Not surprisingly, Bob’s own traumatic event, the death of his son, brought him on a journey as well. However, seemingly wiser from his travels, Bob explained to Fern that mourning is unnecessary. The nomadic lifestyle taught him that “There is no final goodbye,” only, “I'll see you down the road.”
There is no final goodbye for America in the 21st century. The spirit of survival that drives Fern is what drives us. Zhao does not provide a solution to America’s economic crisis, only the solace of understanding that nomads are not alone. This is why the West of Nomadland does not evoke nostalgia nor loneliness. The cinematography proves that the vastness of the West is not isolating. Rather, vastness is freedom, the freedom of knowing that even in economic hardship, home can be found in nature and community can be found on the road.