Film Review: ‘Nomadland’ and the Death of the American Dream
Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. The third feature film from director Chloé Zhao, NOMADLAND features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration through the vast landscape of the American West.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Country: United States
Runtime: 108 minutes
Hollywood has made their fair share of films celebrating the bright lights and wonder of places like New York City and Los Angeles. Nomadland is a film that uncovers the polar opposite of this, showing us the reality for many people in the United States who struggle to get by.
The film centres around Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who loses her job after the manufacturing plant she works at closes down. She sells everything she has to purchase a van and pursue a nomadic lifestyle. It is evident right away that Fern struggles to make ends meet — she searches desperately for jobs but is barely qualified to take on anything more than seasonal work.
This is not the van lifestyle that we see Instagram influencers raving about today. Fern’s van is just big enough for a bed and a countertop with all of her kitchen appliances. When it falls apart, she has to put it back together on her own. She goes number one and number two in a plastic bucket. At one point she even has to empty out her van because of ants. Fern’s lifestyle could not be further from the glamorous picture of what it is like to live in the United States that Hollywood often tries to sell us.
Fern’s nomadic lifestyle brings her to cross paths with several others who lead a similar lifestyle, helping her to find a place to belong while still wrestling with a sense of solitude. Without her husband, Fern has no close family left. Within the nomadic community, it is evident from her inexperience that she is a newcomer. At each of her jobs, she never gets to stay for more than a few months. Fern never truly feels a sense of belonging but perhaps she sees this as all the more reason not to put down roots. There is nowhere for Fern to call home anyway, and travelling on the road may be the only thing keeping her going.
The film itself is very symbolic and reflective of Fern’s life — it is stripped down, the colours are muted, and even the music score is minimal. The film is also slow and meditative and it does not speed through the monotonous or simplistic moments. Rather, it allows us to experience it just as she does. Every day is hardly different from the next, it is repetitive and sombre.
While there are occasional moments of excitement, it is still rooted in the reality of the circumstances. These moments may bring a temporary sense of joy but they do not resolve the underlying issues Fern struggles with. The film may appear to be pretty stagnant, but upon putting ourselves in her shoes, you realise that despite her age she still has a lot to learn about her life.
Aside from loneliness, darker themes such as death and even suicide are discussed in a very sobering tone. There are moments scattered throughout the film where Fern sits down with the people she meets on the road and opens up about the trials of life. Ruminating on the losses they have faced in life, a friend tells Fern: “There’s no easy answer”.
Although we never see Fern’s life with her husband, it is evident that he is still very present to her. Other nomads share about people they too have lost, and it is a humanising experience to come face to face with the fleeting nature of life. These people are victims of a broken system that shows little grace and can be cruel. Despite all the American Dream is made out to be, hard work does not guarantee everyone success. When life stops bringing reasons to be excited to wake up each day, those left behind in the dust have to learn to find those reasons for themselves. Even after all that they have experienced, the nomads seek to find reasons to keep going.
Nomadland is one of this year’s nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and clinched four BAFTA awards including Best Film. Director Chloe Zhao took home Best Direction at the BAFTAs and is also the first woman of colour to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. The awards and nominations are well-deserved — in a film as simplistic as Nomadland, the attention to detail becomes even more evident.
The film is able to place its focus on the themes it explores of poverty, loneliness, and existence by ridding itself of distractions outside of its storytelling such as flashy visuals or a grand soundtrack. Many of the actors are real-life nomads themselves, retaining their real names as their on-screen names within the film. This adds yet another level of authenticity and candidness to the narrative. Nomadland is best seen on the big screen, to bask in the vast landscapes and indulge in the cinematography.
Nomadland leaves you contemplating one’s place in this world and the weight of achieving conventional success in life. While thousands of people are living the dream in the United States, millions more will go about ordinary lives and some may even struggle to scrape by. Yet these are all people with their own lives and stories to tell, people like Fern and the nomads.
What makes life worth living is the age-old question, and perhaps the American Dream makes it seem as though success is what makes life worth living. Fern and the nomads may seem far from the conventional idea of success, but they still rise each morning and choose to keep going.
Nomadland is out now in cinemas islandwide.