A gun-slinging cowboy riding his horse towards the sunset is an image synonymous with the Western genre. Almost every Western ever has presented a protagonist, let’s call him the Cowboy, with an unexplored traumatic past, traveling town-to-town. The Cowboy collects bounties as a source of income, which leads to the adventure shown in the film. As a bonus, the Cowboy usually smokes like the train engines of that era. In addition to watching Nomadland, I couldn’t help but notice these tropes present in the film in some capacity. However, with the similarities of some tropes come others that are direct contradictions. So does that make Nomadland a Western or an anti-Western?
Nomadland is a 2020 film directed by Chloé Zhao, based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Although the book is non-fiction, Chloé Zhao invented the character of Fern, played fantastically by Frances McDormand, to provide the film a plot and a protagonist to follow. Through Fern, Chloé Zhao subtly explores the several tropes of the Western genre throughout the entirety of the film in a modern light.
The Similarities – Nomadland (2020 film)
After Fern, a widow in her sixties, loses her job following the shutting down of the Empire mine where she worked, she decides to put her gathering in storage and live as a nomad. Throughout the film, Fern does different professions, akin to the Cowboy collecting bounties. The Cowboy, like Fern’s desire to be a nomad, generally had a deceased spouse in their past and is utilizing the nomadic trip to grieve their sorrow. Also, similar to the Cowboy, Fern refuses to quit smoking.
At the end of the film, we see Fern visit her old town, Empire, now a ghost town. There, she makes the final step of the emotional journey in Nomadland. By giving up all of her old possessions residing in the storage, she finally lets go of her old life. And as the Cowboy does after finally processing his grief and riding his horse into the sunset, Fern rides her Vanguard to her next destination.
The Dissimilarities – Nomadland (2020 film)
For all the similarities in Fern and the Cowboy, there are enough dissimilarities to distinguish the both. The most obvious one is the gender switch, with Fern being a woman instead of a man. This leads to the replacement of the macho masculinity of the Cowboy with the empathy shown by Fern.
Another clear dissimilarity is the fellowship shown between all the nomads and Fern. This is a clear contrast to the untrustworthiness of all the characters in Westerns. The nomads are open about their most traumatic moments to others and live together like a family. This is most clear when Swanky gives away her possessions for free to anyone, including something that her own grandmother gave her.
Old-time Westerns glamorizes the lifestyle that the Cowboy follows. With the various adventures he goes on, it almost seems thrilling and adrenaline-rushing. Whereas, Nomadland shows the problems and responsibilities of leading this life. The film also explores the grief that leads the characters other than Fern to adopt the nomadic lifestyle and puts this life in a melancholic light.
Nomadland also expresses through Fern the wish of belonging somewhere once more. But at the same time, she’s also afraid of losing everything once again. She constantly swings between the wish to settle down somewhere and keep moving from everyone alone with her grief. However, Westerns prefer not to explore this side of the Cowboy in depth.
Nomadland cannot be properly labeled as a Western or as an anti-Western. It can be said, Chloé Zhao attempted to utilize the film as an in-depth examination of the Western genre, also fulfilling numerous additional goals. Rather it can be considered a story that uses Western tropes to solidify its plot while being anti-Western enough to retain its unique identity.