When first entering the cinema with my housemate to see Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew about this film, aside from that it is based on Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, was what I had gathered from posters and advertisements: a rustic, cool-looking Frances McDormand gazing into the distance while wandering against a backdrop of barren, mountainous wastelands and picturesque sunrises.
But as this western-style motion-picture unfolded on the big screen before me, I came to perceive Nomadland as a very didactic film – a cinematic epic poem that presents us with powerful images of North America’s natural beauty, addresses ideas about community and concepts of ‘home’, but also brings attention to concerns about trying to evade corporate ensnarement and transgressing socio-economic norms within a consumerist western society.
Zhao’s Nomadland introduces us to the dust-bowl atmosphere of post-crash North America, 2012. Presented to us is the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a freshly widowed woman grieving the loss of both her husband and her hometown, who begins a new, nomadic lifestyle, travelling through the Western States in a dishevelled van that becomes her home. While following McDormand’s Fern as she embarks on a journey with no final destination, we are also introduced to a number of other nomads’ personal accounts of financial poverty and hardship, and the impact rejecting their old lives in exchange for ‘packing up and hitting the road’, has had on their wellbeing.
Although the film has an early-2010s setting, and it is mostly believed that the western world has surpassed this era of socio-economic turmoil, Nomadland’s core themes still send out relevant messages to the contemporary audience: it transmits messages laced with slight digs at major corporations – namely Amazon – but also asks us, as citizens of an industrialised and materialistic world, to rethink our relationships with nature, and each other.
I want to start by drawing attention to the film’s appreciation of nature. One of the first things that caught my eye when watching Nomadland was the captivating use of cinematography to illustrate the remarkable beauty of North America’s natural scenes: I distinctly remember one particularly gorgeous moving shot of waves roaring and crashing against the cliffs during Fern’s travel along the West Coast, tinted by the light golden-brown of a rising sun bursting through thick clouds. Such scenes as this are hypnotic, cathartic, and too often overlooked.
Responsible for these awesome images is Joshua James Richards. In an interview with IndieWire, the film’s director of photography stated that the inspiration behind his scenic shots originated from his admiration of other cinematography, most notably that in The Thin Red Line where soldiers engage in violent warfare against vast, grassy plains and blue skies. Richards also took inspiration from paintings presented at the Hudson Valley River School, and his fascination towards “that fading light on American western horizon” depicted in the paintings, is clearly reflected in the frequent shots of McDormand standing or travelling against beautifully coloured sunrises and sunsets.
The aim of Richards’ videographic endeavours, placing McDormand among several breath-taking natural sceneries across America, is to bring focus upon the relationship between nature and human. In these epic pictures that capture nature’s grand essence, there is the underlying universal message that we have neglected this relationship. The general climate of the twenty-first century has been so overpowered by mass urbanisation, fixations with technological enhancements, and the curation of materialist markets, that we forget the greater enlightenment that can be found in nature. The film promotes a return to the appreciation of nature, as Swankie does in the film when she announces that she has terminal lung cancer and will spend her final days kayaking down the creeks of Alaska. What the films urges from us is the adoption of the mentality shared by Fern, Swankie, and other nomads – one that recognises that the greatest satisfaction cannot be found in a screen, but rather in nature.
While it fervently promotes a rejection of modern, urban superficiality and a return to the appreciation of nature, this merely runs alongside Nomadland’s nuclear subject: nomad culture. Nomadism, in western society, is a lifestyle that has been unfairly scoffed at, and even stigmatised, simply because it doesn’t conform to the western norm of settling down or staying ‘rooted’. But Nomadland actively confronts this stigmatisation.
For example, the film provokes a debate about the true definition of ‘home’. Early in the film, Fern tells a young girl she used to tutor that “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless”. This statement alone could challenge not only the limitedness of the widely shared modern association of ‘home’ with ‘house’, but also the housing market, which itself is a capitalist economic structure used to fuel mass house buying.
The film also tries to derail the notion that healthy community relationships can only exist if they are static. Throughout the film, we see Fern enter and exit from a handful of different communities that, like herself, are constantly on the move and settling only temporarily. And yet she is still making solid friends, bumping into them again and again during her travels, and communal happiness is still maintained amongst herself and the people she associates with.
The ability to transcend fixed rootedness and still achieve both communal stability and healthy personal wellbeing is a trait of nomadism that Nomadland attempts to highlight. Author and nomadic advocate Bob Wells, who also appears in the film, characterises nomadic community as almost immortal, never-ending: “I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say ‘I’ll see you down the road.’”
A significant aspect of nomadism, particularly in North America, that Nomadland is interested in, is its attitude of retreatism – or rather, the desire shared among the 3 million North American nomads to retreat from lives of vocational unhappiness and towering debts. Bob Wells once again paints the picture for us in the film:
“I think of an analogy as a work horse. The work horse that is willing to work itself to death, and then be put out to pasture. And that’s what happens to so many of us. If society was throwing us away and sending us as the work horse out to the pasture, we work horses have to gather together and take care of each other. And that’s what this is all about.”
In curating these retreatist mobile communities, Wells’ overall goal has always been to provide victims of the economic crash’s financially catastrophic effects, safety nets for the fall. For many retirees and former full-time employees, this is an ideal safe haven from the dread of more hardship and monotony, which working for ‘The Man’ as it were, supplies.
But while Nomadland gives nomadism a platform, it also reveals a more cynical and doubtful approach to its utopian ideals about fleeing from the claws of corporate capitalism. An exemplar case is that of Fern who, despite engaging happily in nomad communities and mobile living, finds herself under the thumb of one economic predator or another.
For instance, she frequently returns to Amazon, working in packaging, because “the pay is good”; this is a nod via Zhao to the traps that notorious companies like Amazon set for unsuspecting workers, decorated with the promise of good wages, benefits and security, when the reality is being turned into cheap labour for corporations to exploit.
But the problem that Zhao is trying to underline is that, even whilst participating in a nomadic lifestyle, such snares are unavoidable, because in a world aggressively dominated by monetary currency, you either find and secure a revenue stream or suffer. Even nomads like Fern, who find herself caught and paralysed by the inability to pay hefty bills for repairs on her van, can neither evade nor deny this.
In my opinion, there is no set menu for what Nomadland has to offer us. There may be no actual promotion of the nomad lifestyle, or anti-capitalist propaganda against major corporations. That said, what Nomadland does try to achieve is just the telling of one great narrative, a widely shared experience of strife and enlightenment, community and isolation, freedom and tethering.
By imparting this epic depiction unto us, of lives that seem alien and unthought of, perhaps the film hopes to teach us more about the world outside our comfortable, normative bubbles.
Featured Image Source: Still via SearchlightPictures // YouTube