The film Nomadland, which cemented its status as the front-runner for Best Picture with six Oscar nominations this week, includes unforgettable characters and images. It heralds the arrival of a major directing talent in Chloé Zhao, nominated for Best Director, and features yet another masterful turn from Frances McDormand, nominated for Best Actress. But for anyone who has read its source material, Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film feels oddly incomplete. The filmmakers chose to jettison the book’s muckraking journalistic spirit and economic critique, ending up with a film that’s supposedly an examination of contemporary society, but feels politically inert.
There are a few particular pleasures for Bruder’s readers in the film. The main one is the unusual experience of seeing the book’s characters, including its central figure Linda May, portrayed by the people themselves. But something starts to feel off early in the film, when Fern, the fictional character played by McDormand, goes to work in an Amazon warehouse. As Wilfred Chan has written in Vulture, Nomadland’s portrayal of the e-commerce giant is surprisingly benign. Bruder goes into chilling detail about the long hours and frequent injuries experienced by the company’s “Camperforce” workers, dwelling in particular on the painkillers many use to get through their shifts and the “hardening” that older workers—many of whom have little or no previous experience with manual labor—have to go through in order to acclimate to their jobs. None of this appears in the film, where Amazon work is portrayed as a bit monotonous but not really all that taxing. There’s even a safety lecture included, in case we doubted the company’s commitment to the welfare of its workers. Fern’s only comment on her temporary job is that it is “good money.”
It’s notable that the movie was filmed inside a real Amazon warehouse, featuring the company’s real name and logo. Cinematographer Joshua Richards told the Wrap, “Fran wrote a nice letter to Amazon to ask them if we could do it, and they said yes.” He describes the company as “totally accommodating” and says they “knew it wasn’t a film about them” and denies that the film is making a “big critical statement.” Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything in it they might object to.
But the issue goes beyond just Amazon. The book is in large part about the economic conditions that make retirement impossible for middle-class Americans. The film touches on this—particularly in one campfire sequence in which nomads share the circumstances that sent them out on the road—but more often it presents nomadism as a means of personal liberation or escaping personal trauma. In Fern’s case, she comes from the ghost town of Empire, Nevada, a real place but one whose strange fate is not exactly typical of the everyday economic worries—medical bills, mortgage debt—that force Americans out of their homes every day.
There’s a striking common element shared by this film and Sound of Metal—the other of this year’s award contenders whose main characters also live in a van. (Minor spoilers follow.) Both films include a late sequence in which the main supporting character—an older nomad who takes a fancy to Fern, played by David Strathairn in Nomadland; the protagonist’s girlfriend, played by Olivia Cooke, in Sound of Metal—leaves the road to live with their estranged family, not just in relative comfort but extreme luxury. In both films, the camera lingers on tables laden with food; clinking, wine-filled glasses; families gathered round tinkling pianos; and roomy beds with clean linen. Neither Fern nor Riz Ahmed’s Ruben has that level of immediate comfort to fall back on, but they both turn down generous offers of shelter from people who care about them in order to return to the insecurity of their itinerant lives.
At the end of Nomadland, Fern, who is still dealing with her lingering feelings of guilt surrounding her husband’s death, leaves behind a potential life with Strathairn’s character to return to the nomadic cycle of work and travel. The road is where she needs to be, not because she lost her home, but because the road now is her home.
The last conversation Fran has in Nomadland is with Bob Wells, the nomadism evangelist and organizer of the yearly “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” and at times Zhao seems to have taken his message at face value. Wells urges retirees struggling with bills to “simplify your life” and invest in “wheel estate.” His website suggests to potential nomads, “Maybe you were a gypsy, vagabond or hobo in a past life, but you think you could never afford to live the life of freedom you long for?” Nomadland serves as an effective visual accompaniment to Wells’ pitch that in the modern economy, nomadic life just makes more sense and is more rewarding than sedentary retirement. Yes, we get to see some of the grit of the nomadic lifestyle—not many films feature a two-time Oscar winner defecating in a bucket—but the image more likely to linger with viewers is McDormand’s golden-hour ramble through the Badlands.
In a recent interview with Esquire about the film, Bruder mocked #vanlife, the irritating social media trend of well-heeled influencers taking the road, posting exquisitely art-directed nature shorts from their retro campers. But there’s more than a bit of #vanlife in the melancholy but ultimately sanguine film that was made from her book. If it’s true, as it’s sometimes said, that there’s no such thing as an anti-war film—the action and stakes of combat will inevitably make the whole enterprise seem exciting—it may be even more true that there’s no such thing as an anti-road movie. It’s theoretically possible to imagine such a film, in an America of anonymous interstates and strip mall suburbs, but the glories of the American West are too much for most filmmakers to resist. Put your protagonists on the open road through a classic American landscape, and it will seem appealing, no matter what the circumstances—racist police abuse, attempted rape, murder—that might have set them on their journey.
In Nomadland’s case, the problems are also evidence of the difficulty of adapting first-person journalism to the screen. Bruder’s approach to reporting on the nomads is immersive. She buys a van (named “Van Halen”) and works undercover alongside her subjects at an Amazon center and the annual sugar beet harvest. But she also maintains a journalistic remove, treating what her subjects are telling her critically. Zhao tells her story from a nomad’s perspective with the real nomads’ direct participation in the storytelling, so whatever critical distance Bruder maintained disappears. No one can doubt the director’s empathy for her subjects. But perhaps, for this topic, something more than empathy was needed.
These are people who are adamant that they are not victims, have chosen the lifestyle they lead of their own free will, and are grateful for the opportunities they get. This is admirable in some sense, but in the case of modern nomadism, it’s part of the problem. As Bruder’s reporting shows, one of the reasons companies like Amazon like to hire retirement-age “workampers” for physically demanding jobs that seem better suited for young bodies is that they “demand little in the way of benefits or protections. … Most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered.” The scrappy, no-complaints stoicism that makes these people appealing movie characters also makes them extremely exploitable. “They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up, work hard, and are basically slave labor,” a 77-year-old man working 8- to 10-hour shifts loading Christmas trees onto customers’ cars tells her.
Bruder’s book pulled off something tricky and impressive: The Kerouacian romance of the road, the beauty of the Western landscape, and the quirky fellowship of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous were all in there, and that’s presumably what drew McDormand and Zhao to the project. But she was also cleareyed about the economic circumstances that pushes seniors into this lifestyle, and the companies that exploit this new “plug and play” labor force. If you’re only telling one side of that story, you’re doing a disservice to the other.