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Oscars frontrunner Nomadland chronicles the working-class despair wrought by US capitalism, but still manages to kiss Amazon’s ass

Michael McCaffrey
Michael McCaffrey

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Oscars frontrunner Nomadland chronicles the working-class despair wrought by US capitalism, but still manages to kiss Amazon’s ass
The new movie gives a gritty glimpse into the struggle of the working poor across the US, but genuflects to corporate power instead of exposing it. It’s a great film, but ultimately a missed opportunity.

‘Nomadland’, starring Frances McDormand and written and directed by Chloé Zhao, tells the story of Fern, an older woman who lives in a van and survives as a seasonal worker in various locales across America.

The film, which is currently in theaters and streaming on Hulu, is based on the non-fiction book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’, and uses some of those whose stories are told in it to play themselves.

It’s a fantastic watch, and an Oscars frontrunner, but it’s not for everybody. It’s an arthouse, verité-style film with a loose narrative structure that lacks predictable dramatic beats. It’s less a straightforward story than a melancholy and mournful meditation. 

And it’s the subject of that meditation – American capitalism, impermanence, and grief – that makes ‘Nomadland’ such an intriguing piece of cinema. 

The story begins with Fern being forced to leave her long-time residence in Empire, Nevada, after the town’s United States Gypsum plant closes and the once-bustling area is abandoned. She takes to the road to run from her grief over losing Empire and her husband, and travels throughout the west, searching for seasonal employment. She makes friends with fellow travelers, all suffering in similar circumstances, as she lives out of her van while working menial jobs in Nevada, Arizona, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The sense of isolation and desperation felt by Fern is heightened by cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ gorgeous panoramic shots of the vast and beautifully bleak western landscape. And, like those desolate landscapes, the deep lines in McDormand’s gloriously cinematic face tell the story of the years of hardships and heartbreaks that have brought Fern and her kind to the brink of extinction. 

Speaking of extinction, the film repeatedly refers to dinosaurs, and the sub-text is clear: the meteor of globalization, financialization, and anti-unionism has hit, and Fern and the working class in America are dinosaurs destined to aimlessly walk the darkened earth searching for scraps until they drop dead from exhaustion.

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The film also frequently references carnivores, the symbolism of which is that American capitalism eats up and spits out people like Fern. In one scene, she is horrified watching a crocodile in a zoo devour skinned rabbits for lunch. Her primordial horror is driven by the fact that American capitalism is the crocodile, and she and all the poor people she loves are the rabbits.

Fern and her friends had all bought into the lie that is the American Dream, and now they find themselves older, with dwindling energy and resources, alone and vulnerable, living out the American Nightmare. They’ve worked hard their whole lives and have nothing to show for it except for the existential terror of life without any safety net. 

Despite the finely crafted filmmaking, McDormand’s powerfully grounded performance, and the film’s chronicling of the wandering underclass and rightful bemoaning of the Titanic-esque economic state of America, it disappoints because it refuses to name or chastise the corporate villains hiding in plain sight. For example, Fern works every Christmas season at an Amazon warehouse. The filmmakers were actually granted permission to shoot in an Amazon fulfillment center, but that undoubtedly compromised its integrity.

The Amazon-related scenes seem as if they were scripted by the company’s human resources and marketing departments, as they’re basically shameless ads for the corporate behemoth. Fern is shown meandering down vast warehouse walkways, smiling at and waving to other employees, having fun in the break room with her new friends, and telling others about how much money she makes and how the company covers the cost of her long-term van parking while she’s an employee. But the reality of employment at Amazon is much different, as the union-busting, worker-exploiting Bezos beast brutally cracks the whip over its employees like a frantic pharaoh building a pyramid one box at a time. 

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On the surface, ‘Nomadland’ is a descendant of the Sean Penn-directed film ‘Into the Wild’ and John Ford’s famed adaptation of Steinbeck’s working-class masterpiece ‘Grapes of Wrath’. Fern is something of a cross between Alexander Supertramp, the free-spirited protagonist of ‘Into the Wild’, and Tom Joad in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. The problem, though, as highlighted by the film’s shameless acquiescence to Amazon, is that Fern is Supertramp without spirit and Joad without spine.

Maybe the film’s lack of testicular fortitude in regard to Amazon is just another piece of sub-text, surreptitiously alerting viewers that the real problem is the modern demonization of masculinity and the feminization of America. In this way, Fern is a castrated Tom Joad – not only unable, but also unwilling, to fight against her oppressors, instead preferring to collaborate in her own exploitation and denigration.  

More likely, though, is that the film’s Amazon ass-kissing is a function of that corporate monstrosity’s massive influence over Hollywood. Amazon is now a major movie and TV studio, and the suck-ups and sycophants in Hollywood know that to get on Amazon’s bad side is a potentially fatal career move – so they pucker up and play-act at caring about working- class concerns, rather than actually doing something about them.

‘Nomadland’ will probably win a bunch of well-deserved Oscars, but, unfortunately, the film is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ without the wrath, as it ultimately genuflects to the corporate power that created the working-class tragedy it masterfully chronicles.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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