Film and drama

Screen Themes: Nomadland is Easy Rider for the 2020s

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John Turnbull checks out the multi-Academy Award-winning film Nomadland and its similarities to classic road movie, Easy Rider.

Nomadland (2020)

Directed by Chloé Zhao

In 2011, U.S. Gypsum closed their mine in Empire, Nevada, a company town in which the mine was the only employer. Within five months, Empire had become a ghost town, with residents abandoning their homes and dispersing across America looking for a future. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a former U.S. Gypsum employee who recently lost her husband, forced to pack up a few belongings into a van and travel across the country seeking work. 

From picking potatoes to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre, Fern encounters many more people like herself: nomads by choice or circumstance, separating themselves from traditional society and living out of vans and caravans.

What separates Nomadland from similar films like Into the Wild is that the people that Fern meets are played not by actors but by real people living a transitory life. The stories that these people tell make up the heart of Nomadland and director Chloé Zhao must be given credit for blurring the lines between fiction and documentary to such emotional effect.

Winner of Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Cinematography, Nomadland is one of those films that feel incredibly worthy, but perhaps a little heavy for a casual night’s viewing. This may or may not be true, but it’s almost worth watching for the beautiful landscapes and stunning cinematography.

While there is little plot to speak of and the narrative flow is almost dream-like, Nomadland remains a captivating experience that captures both the freedom and the insecurity of life on the road.

Easy Rider (1969)

directed by Dennis Hopper

Made at the tail-end of the swinging sixties, Easy Rider tells the tale of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two bikers on a road trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans with their gas tanks full of the cash proceeds of a drug sale. 

Along the way, they pick up George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic lawyer on good enough terms with the local police to get Wyatt and Billy out of gaol when they get busted for riding in a parade without a permit. Wearing his old football helmet for protection (which is still probably safer than Billy’s slouch hat) George joins his new friends on their journey, smoking grass and sleeping under the stars.

Billed as the story of a man who '...went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere...'Easy Rider was shot with only the bare bones of a script — with director Hopper reportedly happy to find inspiration from whatever intoxicant he could get his hands on at the time. Fortunately, he also hired cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, who managed to capture some of the most beautiful American landscapes filmed to date, partially balancing out how often Hopper uses “man” as a substitute for every other word.

Light on plot, heavy on atmosphere, where Easy Rider works (outside the visuals) is when it contrasts the backwoods attitudes of middle America with the stark beauty of the wide-open landscapes they inhabit. As locals compare bikers to primates and tensions ratchet up towards inevitable violence, it is clear who the real animals are.

The Verdict

While the central characters of Nomadland and Easy Rider could scarcely be more different in origin, their experiences are remarkably similar. Dismissed and looked down upon by the “straight world” and determined to make their own way in an increasingly materialistic society, Fern, Wyatt, Billy and George are all searching for deeper meaning in life.

There is a profound boldness in their willingness to step away from society, yet each encounters challenges that could result in arrest, injury or even death — all with the awareness that this is the road they’ve chosen. 

From a broader perspective, Easy Rider mourns the loss of innocence of the late 1960s while Nomadland laments the loss of humanity of the early 2020s — all set against the massive backdrop of a land that will still remain, impassive, long after we’re gone.

John Turnbull is a writer, balloon pilot and tattoo aficionado. For more movie news from John go to The Movie Club.

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