Nomads in Search of a Villain

The new film Nomadland is a heartfelt look at the lives of itinerant Americans cast aside by the Great Recession. But it ignores how employers like Amazon are raking in profits off this new class of worker.

Illustration by Cat Sims

In the aftermath of the 2008 housing crash, millions of Americans were unable to pay their mortgages. Some of them had always struggled financially, while others had been secure until the Great Recession emptied their savings accounts and shattered their lives. For some, there seemed to be no alternative but packing up everything and hitting the road — for good.

The film Nomadland, based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, brings audiences into the world of people who live in their vans and campers while crisscrossing the continental United States picking up seasonal jobs. While Chloé Zhao’s film is itself a work of fiction, she uses the book’s details to send a fictional central character named Fern (Frances McDormand) on a journey with real-life nomads straight from the text, placed in many of the same locations Bruder describes. As the director has put it, the character of Fern serves as a “guide” for the audience, bringing them into this unknown American world.

The film provides an empathetic portrayal of these nomads. Between capturing the relationships between these itinerant Americans and the beautiful landscapes they inhabit on their journeys, the film doesn’t shy away from pointing the finger at the financial crisis for the plight they face. Yet it does surprisingly downplay how employers across the country take advantage of them.

The Lives of Post-Recession Nomads

Fern once lived in Empire, Nevada, a former company town built around a gypsum mine and drywall plant. But in December 2010, after ninety years of operation, her firm announced that demand had collapsed and that everyone in company-owned homes would have to move out by the end of the school year. While Fern may not be a real person, the story of Empire is very much real.

After having her life shattered in her sixties, Fern starts residing in a van whose back section she’s repurposed into a small living space. She doesn’t have much money and, at her age, there’s a slim chance of finding dependable work, so she joins a growing band of people who relocate throughout the year to obtain seasonal positions harvesting food, working in tourism, and responding to the holiday rush at Amazon’s warehouses.

Other than Frances McDormand and David Strathairn — who plays another nomad named David — the rest of the cast are nonprofessional actors who actually live on the road. Linda May, who is prominently featured in Bruder’s book, plays cards with Fern while they do their laundry and discusses wanting to build an Earthship, while Charlene Swankie sends Fern a video once she achieves her goal of kayaking in Alaska. The production spent a lot of time with the nomads to authentically capture how they live, even if some aspects of their lives are fictionalized.

It’s easy to look at the nomads and think they’re simply living in vans or campers because that’s all they can afford — and certainly, in many cases, that’s true — but there’s more to it than that. Many of them are seemingly living a nomadic life by choice, critical of the expectations that are foisted on modern Americans: the need to take on debt for school or a home, then work for the rest of their lives to pay it all off, only to find the promised golden years of retirement never arrive. They embody an important critique of the lifestyle that was promoted in the postwar period, which worked for many for a number of decades but is benefiting fewer and fewer as the years go on.

However, given the erosion of the collective power of the American working class, the response of these nomads is not to somehow build organizations to challenge or reform those structures, but rather to find an individual path to opt out as much as possible.

But where some people see pity, others see opportunity. In order to earn what little they need to survive, the nomads have become a roving labor force filling seasonal positions across the country. Their scant bargaining power has left them at the mercy of employers — something the film regrettably glosses over.

How Amazon Got Insanely Rich With Nomadic Workers

Throughout Nomadland, Fern works a range of temporary jobs. She takes care of a campground with Linda May, serves burgers at Wall Drug with David, and suffers through the sugar beet harvest on her own. But the first job we see her working is at a sprawling Amazon fulfillment center.

Amazon is hardly known for treating its warehouse workers well. During the pandemic, workers complained that the company wasn’t doing enough to keep them safe from contracting COVID-19 from coworkers, and even before that, it was clear that Amazon workers experienced higher rates of injury, were overworked with strict targets, and were scared to even use the bathroom during their shifts.

As a reporter, Bruder does not shy away from these details. She describes shifts of ten hours or more, during which time workers might walk more than fifteen miles. To make it through the day, workers told her they would take painkillers throughout their shifts and try not to stand on their days off because their legs hurt so much. Meanwhile, Amazon benefits immensely from their desperation.

Amazon’s program to attract “workampers” is called CamperForce, and it began as an experiment that corresponded with the housing crash to ensure the company would have enough staff for the rush of orders around the holidays. However, Bruder notes that Amazon quickly saw the value in these wandering workers and became their “most aggressive recruiter.” Amazon gets federal tax credits for hiring many of them because they fall into disadvantaged categories, and the company also benefits from the fact that these workers demand little in terms of pay and benefits and do not present a unionization risk — in fact, “most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered.”

Walking through the camper parks felt like “wandering around post-recession refugee camps, places of last resort where Americans got shipped if the so-called ‘jobless recovery’ had exiled them from the traditional workforce,” writes Bruder. These workers are “the epitome of convenience for employers in search of seasonal staffing,” and Amazon isn’t the only employer taking advantage of them.

The stories of overwork, underpayment, and unsafe conditions are a constant throughout Bruder’s book. But the film largely looks past these issues. Sure, Nomadland depicts life at an Amazon fulfillment center as tiring, while the sugar beet harvest seems downright dangerous, but Zhao doesn’t give exploitation by employers the same degree of focus that Bruder does. It leaves one to wonder whether the people making the film simply overlooked that key component of Bruder’s book, or whether it was a compromise that had to be accepted in order to film at those real locations.

Stability Requires a Collective Response

If the exploitation of nomadic workers gets downplayed by the filmmakers, the life of the nomad and Fern’s personal journey are placed firmly at the heart of the story. Zhao explains that, to her, there are two types of nomads: those who were forced into that kind of life by the financial crash and those who were always, deep down, nomads at heart. She believes that Fern falls in the latter category.

This is entirely plausible. It’s likely that some who were pushed into the conventional lifestyle promoted by postwar capitalism are now feeling at home on the road. But that doesn’t mean they should be subject to mistreatment when they have to earn some income, or that that aspect of their work isn’t necessary for getting a full picture of their lives.

Nomadland shines in its empathetic portrayal of people who’ve largely been forgotten after their lives were shattered ten years ago and who now find themselves constantly on the move in search of new, low-paid seasonal employment. Its release during a pandemic leaves one to wonder how much their ranks will swell as a result of this current economic crisis.

But no one should be pushed toward life (and work) on the road. While the humanity of itinerant workers is on display in both the book Nomadland and the film, the latter falls critically short of contextualizing the experiences of these workers in the specific historical and economic conditions that perpetuate their uprootedness.

In a misguided attempt to portray the individual agency of the story’s protagonists, the film’s creators have missed an opportunity to show the greater truth at the heart of Nomadland: these “nomads” are not merely struggling in isolation or alienated from the American dream, objects of pity or romance for the viewer. They are not merely tired or restless. They are powerless to organize against the state-sanctioned abuse of their employers.