‘It’s an utter myth’: how Nomadland exposes the cult of the western squib

From cowboys to ‘van-dwellers’, itinerant Americans are often portrayed as heroic lone wolves. Chloé Zhao’s film shows that the truth is more complicated and less glamorous

It has been a wild ride for Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s roving portrait of the US’s rootless modern migrants. Shot for $5m and largely featuring amateur actors, it is the little movie that could: this year’s rags-to-riches story, beloved by the critics and odds-setters alike. The road has been cleared, the gold rush is on, but the Hollywood happy ending feels at odds with the film. As Nomadland steers its westerly course – from the Baftas in London to the Oscars in Los Angeles – it is living a dream that it knows is a lie.

Condé Nast Traveler called it “a love letter to America’s wide open spaces”, which is true up to a point, but this ignores the pathos, poverty and desperation at its core. Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction bestseller, the film bounces Frances McDormand’s hard-bitten loner through a modern American badland in which the saloon and the sheriff’s office have been replaced by the RV park and the Amazon warehouse. I would file the film as an anti-western, a wholesale repudiation of manifest destiny, the pursuit of happiness, all the Hollywood snake oil we have long been fed. “Yeah, OK,” Bruder says. “But it’s more complicated than that.” Frustratingly, I think she may be right.

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