Exiled from Empire in Nomadland

Joel Mayward

The opening title card of Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which was recently nominated for Best Picture for next month's Oscars, describes a real-life, post-apocalyptic situation: in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, Empire, Nev., has essentially become a ghost town, as nearly all of its inhabitants relied on the now-closed local gypsum factory for their livelihood.

One former resident, Fern (Best Actress nominee Frances McDormand), has lost everything. With her job gone, her town empty, and her husband recently deceased, she is without haven in the devastation of economic despondency. Empire—both the literal town and the metaphorical American ethos—has been revealed to be an empty source of security. Fern now finds herself in exile, a nomadic wanderer of the vast modern American West in search of work, community, and hope.

Through a unique adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name, Nomadland reveals the real-life stories of modern-day nomads living in the overlooked or marginalized corners of America. Zhao, who has been nominated for Best Director, blends documentary-like realism and nonprofessional actors with an expressionistic appreciation of natural beauty of human and earthen landscapes, an aesthetic which awakens us to the dignified beauty of ordinary people and places.

Yet behind these transcendent images and stories is an underlying theo-political critique of the notion of “empire” in the United States. In his book Christ and Empire, theologian Joerg Rieger describes the dynamic of empire this way: “Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically . . . but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally, and religiously.” In other words, empire is all-encompassing; it is an ideological replacement for God which views the nation-state (in this case, America) as the colonizing conglomerate of power. Nomadland shows us the seams of American empire, how it is still difficult to escape empire’s influence even when its destructive capacities become strikingly obvious.

Zhao creates an aesthetic that awakens us to the dignified beauty of ordinary people and places.

Many of the people Fern encounters are living in isolated poverty, moving from seasonal job to seasonal job in order to eke out a sustainable living. Some of these workplaces—most obviously the massive Amazon warehouse where Fern spends her Christmas and New Year’s Eve—are emblematic of consumer capitalism and American wealth. Yet there are other, more subtle signs of economic disparity and empire’s reach. We see the comfortably affluent extended family of Dave (David Strathairn), a kindhearted man who takes a liking to the reticent Fern. We also glimpse Fern’s own wealthy sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith), who provides much-needed funds to repair “Vanguard,” Fern’s van and home.

Though Fern seems uncomfortable with such a comfortable life, Nomadland is more nuanced than simply “wealth and security = bad; nomadic poverty = good.” When Fern rejects offers from both Dave and Dolly to settle down, she’s rejecting what appears to be community along with consumerism. Though she refuses the materiality of empire, the stubborn hyper-independence of the mythical American frontier—the spirit of empire—is still alive in her. Like all of us, she hasn’t “arrived” yet; she still has more healing and growing to do in the wilderness.

Fern’s journey in Nomadland shares a number of parallels with the various exilic wanderings of the people of God in scripture. We can see the pattern of “home–exile–return” in the notable stories of Jacob, Ruth, and David, as well as the Assyrian and Babylonian exile accounts (and, to some degree, the Egypt/Exodus narrative). These stories begin with the people of God experiencing a sense of normalcy and prosperity in the promised land, only to have everything upended as unexpected catastrophe befalls them, often due to idolatry or a lack of obedience to God. After a sustained period of exile and wandering, they find themselves back where they started, hopefully wiser and humbled on the far side of suffering. Through it all, the love of God is demonstrated through provision and presence; even when it feels like God is far away, the Father is still looking after his children.

The book of Hebrews takes up this nomadic imagery and gives it an eschatological resonance for the Christian faith: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

The author of Hebrews traces a thread throughout scripture: that the people of faith were leaning into hope and “longing for a better country,” one marked by God’s good presence. In other words, to be a Christian is to be a nomad, to live in the “in between” as we await the future kingdom of heaven on this side of Christ’s resurrection and ascension.

Without spoiling the film’s ending, a penultimate scene in Nomadland features Fern returning to her former house in Empire. As she wanders around the decrepit building, she eventually walks out the door and towards the wide-open desert landscape. The image mirrors a similar moment from The Searchers, itself a Western film interrogating the American mythos by way of one of its more mythical cinematic genres. As a neo-Western, Nomadland critiques such American ideologies while simultaneously inviting us to pay attention to the beauty of God’s created order in both nature and human beings. As we see Fern’s van back on the open road, it’s a reminder that those who follow Christ are also foreigners and strangers wandering through this land. We are longing for the heavenly city of God, a place where “(t)hey will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

Topics: Movies