The American dream has changed quite a lot since the inception of the term in the 16th century, adapting with the times to embody an increasingly difficult concept to seize. American dreams are often just that, a fantasy by which an individual believes their life should be lived, including a clear structure of economic success and the rearing of a large stable family. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the definition of this dream has been called to question throughout the centuries, no less than after the economic crash of 2008, a sorrowful time explored with poetic grace in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland.
Steeped in debt and facing the immediate loss of their jobs, many individuals affected by the crash could not uphold the cost of living in their homes so packed up in the search of a simple life on the road. These modern nomads are illustrated by a very particular generation; grey-haired and weathered skin that tells campfire stories, they are the forgotten people of America taking refuge in its quiet outback. Zhao’s film slots actress Frances McDormand into the path of these real-life individuals, creating a docu-fiction in which the story of Fern, a member of this lost generation escapes her past life in pursuit of the bliss of the nomad.
Not much is known about Fern, and not much is necessary to know, she is a stoic, endearing protagonist, not unlike the nomads that she surrounds herself with. As she travels across the gorgeous Nevada landscape her personality is slowly constructed through conversations with characters who come and go as if in a dream. Her journey is a real meditative experience, with every character on her exploration revealing something new about herself and the world around her.
With the help of such fantastic real-life individuals, Chloé Zhao’s script writes itself as the line between reality and fantasy is blurred due to the visibly authentic lives of every actor involved. Just one of these people is Swankie, a bubbly elderly woman travelling across Nevada on her own in a van marked with a Jolly Roger. A real-life nomad, Swankie sits with Fern in her van and discusses the intricacies of her life, revealing to her that she has terminal cancer with only a few months to live. Though there’s a real sincerity to her voice, a genuine honesty that makes her following speech so utterly compelling as she speaks just off-camera: “I’m gunna be 75 this year, I think I’ve lived a pretty good life, I’ve seen some really neat things, kayaking all those places…a moose family on a river in Idaho… if I died right then in that moment I would be perfectly fine.” It’s such a slow, delicate and careful speech, it feels almost ethereal, the words of a truly humble soul.
Listening to Zhao’s dialogue is a pensive delight, enveloping each conversation with such significance that every character Fern meets becomes an instant icon of attachment. Fern’s preoccupations are with these individuals, and with her own relationship with the natural environment that surrounds her. A lost individual, burdening the pain of a past life that ebbs away day by day, she begins to seek comfort in the serenity of nomad life. Maybe this is real ‘American freedom’? It certainly seems to be the case when Fern visits her sister in the city and is reminded of the true redundant responsibilities of modern life, liberty comes when she escapes the small talk of the city and returns to the countryside.
Walking past a traditional American cinema, The Avengers is advertised on the buildings glowing exterior, a revolutionary film that well highlights the recent clamorous change in American society and politics. Such excess is irrelevant to Fern’s new life, one laden with nostalgia for a past long lost, but also with the hope of an enchanting future. Chloé Zhao’s film is a painting of both the landscape of contemporary periphery America and a portrait of those that inhabit its space. Crafted with a gentle passionate lyricism, Nomadland bypasses the futility of the American dream and accesses the very heart of the American soul.