‘Nomadland’ Reinvents The Western

by Jack Miller ‘21

Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which hit Hulu and select theaters on February 19, opens with a title card explaining that in 2011, after the retirement of a central sheetrock plant, the town of Empire, Nevada essentially closed down, leaving many of its former residents in search of new homes. Among them is Fern, played by Frances McDormand, a widow who, after losing nearly everything, embarks on a nomadic journey across western America. The film follows Fern’s life on the road as she lives out of her van, taking seasonal jobs to make ends meet and forging connections with people in similar circumstances along the way.

At the center of “Nomadland” is the balance between financial stability and freedom. Fern’s lifestyle is not an easy one, but she wouldn’t want to live any other way. She repeatedly rejects a traditional home life, instead opting for both the challenges and liberty that come with a life on the road. It’s this bittersweet tradeoff that makes “Nomadland” stand out from other films exploring similar issues—the nomads may have it rough, but they’re free; they aren’t restricted by the boundaries that come with settling down and living a typical household life. In the place of convention and security is independence and a unique connection to the vastness of nature. Zhao presents the nomadic style of living with an infectious warmth, focusing large sections of the film on blossoming friendships and past wounds healing. Rather than criticizing or explaining, the film is mostly concerned with simply observing its conflicts and characters. Despite its showcasing of lower class struggles, the film goes out of its way to avoid politics of any kind, instead portraying its subjects with a wholly humanistic viewpoint. 

Zhao’s story is in many ways reminiscent of the classic Western, from the sweeping West-American landscapes that occupy its frames to its patient exploration of a free-spirited style of living. The film feels very lifelike and naturalistic, with Zhao following her subjects through an almost documentarian lens which complements the film’s themes and slow pace perfectly. Though its unconventionally laid-back and slow approach to storytelling may not be to everyone’s tastes, most will find something to connect with in the quiet beauty of “Nomadland.”

Grade: B+