In some ways, Nomadland, the Best Picture winner at Sunday night’s 93rd annual Academy Awards, is a quintessential Oscar film. Star Frances McDormand, who plays Fern in the film, has become an awards-season favorite in recent years, and the film’s coloring, score, and editing are all in line with the style of film that the Academy seems to be gravitating towards. However, there’s an element of Nomadland that might also have tugged at the hearts of Academy voters that’s not as immediately evident: the film’s many references to classic Hollywood westerns.
A community of drifters with a special connection to their transportation, long and gorgeous shots of the American countryside, plaintive moments of life, death, and grief—all the makings of a great western are present in Nomadland. In one sequence, Fern’s sister Dolly compares her nomadic lifestyle to that of the pioneers, and calls it part of an American tradition. In another, Fern leaves her old company town for the last time, and, as she stands in the doorway and looks out at the country before her, the framing of the shot explicitly references the end of John Ford’s The Searchers (a shot that itself is a tribute to cowboy actor Harry Carey). Then, of course, there’s the final moments of Nomadland, where Fern literally rides off into the sunset like cowboys of old.
If Oscar voters like anything, they like reminders of Old Hollywood; one need only look to Mank’s two wins and ten nominations Sunday night for evidence of that. However, while director Chloé Zhao steeps Nomadland in the tradition of the western, she trades in the backdrop of American expansion for the Great Recession. Instead of using the western to explore the still-bleeding wounds of the Civil War, Zhao uses her film to explore the failures of late-stage capitalism. Her nomads, her cowboys, are still doing the work that no one else wants to do, but now, with no countryside left to settle, they have to make do with scrubbing campsite toilets or working for Amazon.
Make no mistake, Zhao’s historic achievement—the first woman of color to win a Best Directing Oscar—should in no way be glossed over. She and her fellow filmmakers have earned their time in the sun, and Nomadland deserves the boost in streams it will get this week. However, Nomadland did not need the Oscars. In fact, by parading this film out in front of them, the Academy misses the point entirely. Nomadland is dirty and grimy and anti-capitalist. It’s, at its heart, a piece of counterculture art. Like the cowboy films before it, Nomadland is about the fringes of society and the edges of civilization. In that way, it’s antithetical to everything that the stuffy, suit-and-gown Oscars ceremony stands for. No one in Nomadland would’ve watched the Oscars. No cowboy would’ve either.
For two years now, with Nomadland as well as with Parasite, Academy Awards voters have given their highest honor to films that paint scathing portraits of the very economic systems that pay for their homes. Nomadland deserves its praise, and it certainly deserves your watch, but, in the end, the Academy’s endorsement of it means about as much as Jeff Bezos’ would.