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If you listen closely, you’ll hear the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” at the beginning of Nomadland, a film bookended by Christmastime, narrating a year in the life of one nomadic woman, Fern (Frances McDormand). I’ve been thinking about why director Chloé Zhao included this passing nod to Christ. Just to musically signal our temporal placement in the Christmas season? Probably. But I also think the song subtly frames the film in theological terms, as a spiritual meditation on humanity’s longing for eternity in a world haunted by death and decay.
On one level Nomadland—which I named the best film of 2020—is a deeply American story of frontier wandering and open range freedom. It’s a scenic portrait of the American mythos, in the spirit of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Kerouac’s On the Road, or countless Western films. But in the hands of its Chinese-American female director and talented lead actress, Nomadland takes on a more universal perspective.
Out today in select theaters and on Hulu, Nomadland (rated R) is one of those films that cuts to the heart of existence, resonating in tone and texture with the aches we all feel—even if the specific story it tells is far from our particular context. As Fern wanders the American West, she stands in for all of us—searching for home and peace in a world of relentless impermanence.
Student of the Malick School
Chloé Zhao—who has said she hails from “the Terrence Malick school of filmmaking”—draws inspiration from the Tree of Life director in various stylistic and thematic ways. Like Malick she populates her films with a mix of actors and non-actors, going for an improvisational neorealism where unscripted serendipity and “holy moments” take precedence over hewing closely to a script. This was especially true of Zhao’s excellent 2018 film, The Rider (read TGC’s review), and it’s also true of Nomadland—a film in which a few actors (namely McDormand) interact with a cast of mostly normal people playing themselves.
Another way Zhao evokes Malick is by foregrounding nature and treating it as more than just a pretty setting or backdrop—but as something visceral, alive, and interacting with human drama (that Fern’s name is a plant speaks to this). Zhao has said she admires Malick’s way of “working with nature, as opposed to staging nature,” and her camera—like Malick’s—lovingly attends to and ponders nature in a way that goes beyond pretty adornment. There are several scenes in Nomadland where no words are spoken but profound truth is communicated by virtue of how Fern interacts with nature. Creation speaks truth about the Creator, Christians believe (see Psalm 19 and Romans 1), and artists like Malick and Zhao help us hear what it has to say.
Exits and Entrances
The film’s meandering style is fitting for a story about the nomadic wandering of a widow, Fern, trying to find meaning after the death of her husband and the shuttering of the Nevada “company town” where they lived and worked. Over the course of the film, Fern takes her van/home all over the American West, from the dry deserts of Arizona to the Badlands of South Dakota. In each place she finds odd jobs to make money and develops community with fellow “vandwellers” on the road. But each stop on her journey, and each relational connection, is temporary. Fern always moves on.
Creation speaks truth about the Creator, and artists like Malick and Zhao help us hear what it has to say.
Less driven by a plot where A leads to B and B leads to C, Nomadland is instead a collage of colorful encounters, conversations, and open-road vistas. In one place, Fern might be line dancing with a group of fellow wanderers. In another she’s talking about death with a cancer-stricken friend named Swankie, reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) to a young hipster beatnik (this moment was particularly arresting), or having Thanksgiving dinner with a would-be suitor’s family on the Pacific coast.
We naturally want to see Fern—who’s as uprooted as the fallen redwood tree she walks by late in the film—stop, settle down, and build lasting family. But she seems too wounded by what she’s lost, too fearful of getting attached to anyone or rooted anywhere. She knows from experience it can all be lost, and the potential pain keeps her moving on as soon as she gets too comfortable.
As I watched the film I thought of Shakespeare’s famous As You Like It monologue: “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players / They have their exits and their entrances . . .” Characters enter the film, and Fern’s life, in brief moments that pack a memorable punch. Then they exit and we’re not sure if we’ll see them again (some we do, some we don’t). It’s one of the ways the film communicates life’s ephemeral nature. “What is your life?” James ponders in his epistle (4:14). “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Nomadland powerfully captures this truth.
Ferns Don’t Flourish In the Desert
On one hand Fern seems to enjoy her wandering life. Like most of her fellow vandwelling nomads, it’s a way to heal and cope with losses that left scars. It’s a simpler, non-consumerist life where silence and solitude provide peace and clarity. And it’s a life that allows for brushes with transcendence without expectation that it be repeatable or lasting. It’s a life of recognition that all is fleeting—whether dinosaurs (which figure prominently), factories, vehicles, or humans. Everything falls apart. From dust to dust.
There’s certainly wisdom in living with awareness of this. And yet we are also not created to be rootless and unattached. The free-range, uncommitted life may evoke a romantic aura of American autonomy, but in practice it’s unsatisfying. We flourish in community; we grow when we stop long enough to put down roots and bear fruit. To be sure, the committed and rooted life has potential for pain, whereas the nomadic life can evade it to some degree. But not forever, and not ultimately. Death, suffering, and finality are inescapable realities of being human.
We are not created to be rootless and unattached. The free-range, uncommitted life may evoke a romantic aura of American autonomy, but in practice it’s unsatisfying.
Perhaps the most memorable line in Nomadland—and one that sort of serves as the film’s thesis—is spoken by Bob Wells, a YouTube star and vandweller who plays himself in the film. “One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye,” Bob says. “I don’t ever say a final goodbye. Just, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’”
It’s a coping statement for the nomadic vandwellers, who feel the sadness of their brief-but-glorious interactions with fellow travelers. But it’s also an expression of spiritual hope. The specter of death looms large in the film, and Bob’s statement seems to nod in the direction of life after death—reunions with fellow travelers one day in heaven.
Without that hope, “goodbyes” are debilitating—especially goodbyes that involve death. Perhaps that’s why Fern is so aimless and hesitant to invest in relationships again after her husband’s death. The finality of future goodbyes terrifies her. But if Bob’s right—if there’s a “down the road” future where death might not have the last word—then she just might be able to brave love again. The film’s ambiguous ending lets us hope for that.
Perhaps the film’s nod to “What Child Is This?”—a song about the man who alone gives us victory over death (1 Cor. 15:55–57)—hints in the direction of Fern’s embrace of “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) available to every death-terrified, nomadic soul. Will Fern keep wandering in the desert, rootless and parched, or will she allow herself to be planted—like the green shrub for which she is named—in soil supplied with “living water” (John 4:13–14), where she can put down roots and thrive?
The film doesn’t answer that question for Fern, but it invites the audience—and the many spiritual wanderers who will relate to Fern’s journey—to ask it of themselves.