Nomadland (2020): A Poetic Look on American Dream

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‘Nomadland’ is a triumph not only through its technical aspects itself but also a powerfully absorbing poetic character study film thanks to Chloe Zhao phenomenal direction and Frances McDormand quiet performance.
Source: Searchlight Pictures

A nomad is known to be a member of people who have no fixed residence but move from place to place, usually in seasons and within a well-defined territory (Merriam-webster [taro link]). While this unconventional lifestyle in this era mostly applied to hunter-gatherers or pastoral owners, the Great Recession (2007-2008 Financial Crisis) had sought an increase in numbers. This is documented well through Jessica Bruder 2017 non-fiction book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’ and translated into screen by Director-Writer (and editor) Chloe Zhao.

As the book observes the phenomenon of older Americans travelling around the United States for the purpose of finding work, ‘Nomadland’ (2020) tells a different story. Our main character Fern (Frances McDormand) also loses everything in the Great Recession; including her husband and her hometown. Yet instead of temporarily roaming in the wild with her van until settled for a job, she finds herself comfortable living in her ‘vanguard’ – the name of her van – and lives as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

This is not your usual narrative film, but rather a character study of an American outsider, deciding not to follow the footsteps of consumerism slavery. It’s a film created through pieces of moments to bring you emotions with each shot cut and transported into another cut with different time and location. The result is a quiet observation of these dwellers that is also relevant with the feeling of expulsion from the society.

‘Nomadland’, alongside Lee Isaac-Chung ‘Minari’ (2020) are films that discuss the theme of American Dream. However, I found ‘Nomadland’ to be stronger on lots of aspects (you might have seen that I gave the same score with Nomadland but I had changed my mind on giving Minari a lower score. Anyway, rating shouldn’t determine the quality of the film so please do read my review thoroughly hahaha). Perhaps it’s Chloe Zhao’s direction that captures the authenticity of nomads in the film. Zhao uses real nomads, surprising me as hell when the credit starts to roll as their first name matches with the characters’ name. The quality might not be top-tier, but it’s believable enough and their experiences as real nomads really pays off. The use of real nomads also capture the documentary aesthetic that made you really feel living surrounded by these friendly people.

Certainly ‘Nomadland’ wouldn’t work without the involvement of Frances McDormand. She might be quiet here, playing the opposite personality of foul-mouthed Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (which won her 2nd Academy Awards for Best Actress). Yet the quiet moments that really deliver, bonding herself with the beautiful landscape of America we rarely see depicted in media (or the very least in my position living outside America). Accompanied by the breathtaking cinematography by Joshua James Richards (who managed to nail every golden hour scene in magnificent take) and Ludovico Einaudi haunting country score, it’s a film that sets its mood in the right direction to take us away into the film. And when the journey ends, it’ll just stick in your mind for a while, thinking of how much we had missed our opportunities to travel and bond ourselves with God’s greatest gift; nature.

Most will see ‘Nomadland’ as a social critique observation. But I found myself immersed more in the journey of Fern courageously travelling across the US and enjoying life to the fullest.


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Film Credits

Source: Searchlight Pictures


Nationality: USA

Duration: 108 min.


Chloé Zhao


Frances McDormand
David Strathairn
Linda May
Bob Wells
Peter Spears

Written by

Chloé Zhao


Joshua James Richards

Edited by

Chloé Zhao

Composed by

Ludovico Einaudi

Synopsis: A woman in her sixties embarks on a journey through the Western United States after losing everything in the Great Recession, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.