Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland debuted last month in select theaters and on Hulu. On Sunday it won Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes, and Zhao took home the prize for Best Director. The film stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow who moves from job to job, lives out of her white utility van, and develops relationships with members of the nomadic communities that perpetually migrate across the American West. These vandwellers “park” in whichever locale they can find work and be left (relatively) undisturbed, before packing up and moving on when the road calls.
Viewers are introduced to Fern sometime after her husband dies from cancer and she leaves the company town of Empire, Nevada, for the nomadic life. Her temporary gigs include floorworker at an Amazon fulfillment center, groundskeeper at Badlands National Park, and restaurant worker at the cowboy-themed Wall Drug. Though Nomadlanddoes exhibit some narrative elements—will Fern give in to fellow nomad David’s unrequited affection?—it is less a story and more a meditation on space and place. The film’s spatial dynamics can teach us much about the human heart. Traversing Nomadland’s spiritual landscapes, I suggest, affords new perspectives on media’s impact: on us, our students, and the pedagogical spaces where we meet.
Zhao’s aesthetic is much akin to Terrence Malick’s, and to which Nomadland’s sweeping Western vistas are testament. For me, as a self-described claustrophile—one who likes enclosed spaces—the wide-openness of desert and plain suggests danger, exposure, and sadness. The big sky feels empty and awful.
As a Christian, biblical imageries of the City of God combat my mild kenophobia. Notions of gates and streets and walls are not limited to my best guess of what new creation will literally be like; but the walled aesthetic, to me, communicates in analogous ways the spirit of God’s protection. Orthodox Christian priest and writer, Fr. Stephen Freeman, articulates well my own sentiments:
I love walls. Perhaps the most charming aspect of medieval cities are their use of walls. Some surrounded the city and served as protection. […] The heavenly city, described in Revelation, has walls. That highest vision of human happiness is defined—surrounded by mystic walls (para. 1, 7).
Of course, I know that being closed in does not appeal to everyone in this way. When I lived in west Texas, a claustrophobic friend said one reason he’d chosen to pursue his doctorate at the university we were attending was to get away from all the mountains, ‘hollers,’ and foliage of his home state West Virginia. (He wasn’t fond of elevators, either, which Lubbock is short on.) My friend finds God in long views, unobstructed sunsets, and the majestic vastness of creation. That’s fine for him and I’m sure for many others.
But for me the lack of spatial boundaries in Nomadland—walls, mountains, homes that sit still—do not merely function for narrative purposes or to express visual style. Their absence suggests a certain poverty of meaning; not just visual and spatial, but spiritual and relational. Freeman explains: “Psychologically, we describe them [walls] as ‘boundaries.’ […] It is only walls and boundaries that make meaning possible” (para. 3-4, emphasis original).
I don’t know if director Chloé Zhao identifies as a Christian. I can’t find anywhere on record where she discusses matters of faith; the closest I can get is her admiration of Malick, a devout Catholic whose films often exhibit incarnational themes. Interestingly, though, in Brett McCracken’s review of Nomadland for The Gospel Coalition, he highlights a directorial move in the opening and closing scenes that suggests, perhaps, a Christian motif. He notes that the film is bookended by the Christmas carol “What Child is This?”. He asks and answers, does the song “[…] 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” (para. 1).
Perhaps Zhao’s beliefs don’t matter, but viewers’ do. Nomadland is one of those rare films that is experienced in wholly different ways according to one’s (un)belief. As a Christian made aware of the film by other Christians, I was predisposed to “look for” Christ in every word and image. Through a faith-colored lens that accounts for McCracken’s interpretation, the film makes sense theologically, even in profound ways. Nomadland’s inhabitants flounder ‘outside the camp,’ seek refuge in the ephemeral, and chase freedom enslaved. And yet they remain within the bounds of Christ’s dominion. He is the Alpha and Omega Who suffers outside the gate (Hebrews 13:12); Whose advent frames the otherwise boundless void.
In our interactions with students we’d do well to remember that humans—and in particular twenty-somethings!—are predisposed to seek truth in the new and the exciting. But even (and especially) intrepid souls who fly headlong into uncertainty need respite. For Fern it is the well-worn van that she aptly christens Vanguard. It provides the physical and psychological walls to enable her nomadic existence. Her forays into wild landscapes—natural and man-made—are punctuated by scenes of repose inside the van: cooking, peeing, sleeping. But Fern’s intense attachment to the van belies, from a secular view, the profundity of her mission. She leaves home only to create a new one. She forsakes community only to seek it. And in the end she fails to do either because, as God’s creatures, we are made for spiritual community, for mystic walls, for heavenly home.
It’s not that beauty is absent in Nomadland. As I watched I remembered my response as a non-believer, years ago, who sought (and thought I’d found) transcendence in films like Lost in Translation, which evokes similar feelings of wanderlust and nostalgia. It is the kind of ethos Robert Pirsig endorses in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: impermanence as an end in itself. The problem with Fern’s ethereal world is that it invests final truth in boundless change; and thus, in that which changes.
McCracken puts it well:
There’s certainly wisdom in living with awareness of this [i.e., impermanence]. 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 (para.11).
For Fern, unanchored in Christ, the road leads to the Pacific Ocean but no further. The film ends with her return to Arizona for a friend’s memorial service, before going back to Empire to dispose of belongings in a storage unit and visit the abandoned US Gypsum plant where she and her husband worked. The town is dead, with no hope of resurrection. Fern’s final offload of personal items connotes her letting go of that hope and, I think, of finding rest. She hits the road to relive what has become a yearly pilgrimage through Nomadland and, more poignantly, her wistful heart.
Perhaps Fern will someday find Jesus in the face of a fellow vandweller, or in a Bible cast aside. But until she, and we, realize that God determines our steps, our objects of desire will always self-cannibalize: freedom becomes slavery; homelessness becomes home; life gives way to death. As Dana Goodyear writes in The New Yorker, Fern’s “[r]adical self-sufficiency is her true north” (para. 3). Such a worldview (to varying degrees) is engrained in the American psyche, and so our spiritual maps are distorted by the false god of self-determination. Higher ed is not immune.
Ultimately, the physical spaces we haunt—open or closed, moving or static—are dim shadows of spiritual realities. The space we truly inhabit is the human heart, and its disposition toward the Creator puts us in our place: literally and spiritually. Freeman observes this cardiac geography: “I have discovered, over time, that there are walls-within-walls in the human heart. Some of them hide frightful secrets. Even there, paradise hovers ready to consume us if we linger long enough in our desire for God” (para. 18). To find rest, we must abide in those broken places. We must be still to know God (Psalm 46:10).
Many of our students will likely experience Nomadland in much the same way that I did Lost in Translation before I came to know Christ: a rumination on loss, memory, and change—a secular beautific vision. But God is the grand Artist, and His word does not return void (Isaiah 55:11). In a film dominated by dramatic imagery, a whispered song means the most. The second verse of “What Child is This?” goes: “Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christians, fear, for sinners here, the silent Word is pleading.” God calls in our wandering, and brings His children home.