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27 April 2021updated 28 Apr 2021 4:56pm

How Nomadland reveals the true horror of America’s labour crisis

Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning film finally confronts a global audience with the stark reality of the Amazon warehouse.

By Nathalie Olah

Loath as I am to pay attention to award ceremonies, success at the Oscars nevertheless guarantees a film will be watched by several millions of people. In the case of Nomadland, that means confronting a global audience with the stark reality of the Amazon warehouse, as well as the immiseration brought about by the US labour crisis. The film tells the story of a woman made homeless and forced to become one of the millions of nomads living in America from their motorhomes and RVs. This happens when the Gypsum Corporation plant in her hometown of Empire, Nevada, is closed down, casting around 800 residents out and leading to the termination of the town’s zip code. These events are real, based on accounts contained in a book of the same name by the journalist Jessica Bruder.  

The film’s protagonist, Fern, is played by Frances McDormand, who, having spotted a loose thread in the tightly woven tapestry of Hollywood optimism, has spent several decades tirelessly untangling it. Her performances acknowledge a real world replete with stories of an often morbid human truth seldom seen on US television and cinema screens. From her role as the beloved, if cantankerous, Olive Kitteridge in the TV adaptation of the Elizabeth Strout novels, to her stone-faced turn in the picaresque Fargo and her vengeful crusade in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she has steadily transformed the American filmmaking tradition, stripping it of its gloss and edifice to reveal a new medium capable, perhaps, of social realism. 

She won her third best actress Academy Award on Sunday night (25 April), while the film also won Best Picture and Best Director for Chloé Zhao. It follows the triumph of Parasite at last year’s ceremony: a story about the perils of an unregulated job market. Forced to live in her van, Fern works at an Amazon warehouse over the winter, in a sequence that might just make a small dent in the American delivery giant’s share price. Here, we are confronted with an image of workers subject to perennial exhaustion, living out of trailers after completing gruelling days on the warehouse floor. From there, she joins a community of nomads, before working at a camp, a diner and a sugar beet plant, among other places. This is seasonal work, but not as we know it: having nothing to do with the planets or the crop cycle, and everything to do with the vagaries of a vague and mysterious corporate power. 

For this reason, Nomadland invites comparisons with, and serves as something of a counterpoint to, Terrence Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven, a story of itinerant workers at the turn of the 20th century. Like Malick, Zhao shoots in natural light, is fond of the golden hour, and uses the wilderness to pass comment on the struggle for the heart of America. The “one man and the wilderness” trope that is central to the American dream and its promise of self-fulfilment is present, but it rubs up against the harsh reality faced by most Americans in the 21st century – of lives reduced to a succession of dire inevitabilities dictated by the profit motive. How do you reconcile the notion of freedom that is so important to American identity with the fact that so few Americans ever get the chance to experience autonomy or, indeed, control? 

[see also: All the surprises, snubs and changes from this year’s Oscars ceremony]

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This absurd contradiction runs through the film, whose scenes of drudgery are interspersed with arresting panoramas of the badlands of the Midwest, as well as the oddities of the US highway, reminiscent of Ed Ruscha and including vast roadside fibreglass dinosaurs, filling stations and diners. There is a thin vein of surrealism throughout, of the sublime and ridiculous moving closer together, as Fern is forced to navigate the jarring experience of being at once wild, windswept and beaten by the spray of the Pacific ocean, and cowed by the oppressive confines of the warehouse and its mindless and exhausting duties. 

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In this sense, the film also recalls Kafka’s incomplete novel Amerika, which traces the journey of a hapless European immigrant in New York City and beyond. Kafka never visited the US, but his absurd rendition of how one person can so easily slip through its systems is uncomfortably prescient and plausible in a modern context. The parallels with Zhao’s “state of the nation” tale are uncanny: if Kafka’s novel is a farce that experiments with taking the flawed logic of the American project to the nth degree, then Zhao’s film seems to hail the fulfilment of its earlier prophecy. In this landscape, mindless hirings and firings, run-ins with the law and the constant oscillation between security and homelessness are no longer a speculative oddity; they are the primary state of play. 

It is telling that Zhao, like Kafka, was born outside of America. Raised in China, and briefly a student in the UK, she holds a degree in political science and seems far less deferential to the legacy of Hollywood filmmaking than those who worked before her. Perhaps the industry might finally move beyond its own self-congratulatory tendencies, towards a place of real social reflection. That said, Zhao’s film is not a polemic. It has been criticised by those on the left for its often romantic depiction of nomadic lifestyles, and for not explicitly condemning working conditions at Amazon (which Fern praises as “great money”). But there is a subtle irony at play in the upsetting idea that pitiful Amazon remuneration would seem fair, or even generous, to those faced with abject poverty.

Personally, I am fine with the more sentimental moments of Nomadland. Social realism needs the space to contain multitudes and contradictions, just as life does. The fact that America’s poorest people can still find hope in communities forged out of the ruins of a corporate crisis does not negate the horror of that crisis. Instead, it only makes the case for a society governed in the interest of those people and their communities all the more persuasive.  

Nathalie Olah is the author of “Steal as Much as You Can”, published by Repeater Books