Essays · Movies

Searching for the American Dream in ‘Minari’ and ‘Nomadland’

In these two new films, the American Dream is observed from wildly different perspectives. But the conclusion they come to is eerily similar.
Minari And Nomadland
A24/Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on February 26th, 2021

In modern American cinema, two landscapes juxtapose one another: one is vibrant, saturated, and fertile, while the other is insipid and sterile. In this case, the landscapes belong to Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, respectively. Both films battle the ideal of the American Dream through radically different lenses: the outsider devoted to possibility, and the insider jaded by the unreality of the concept. 

Minari tells the story of a Korean-American family in the 1980s after their patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), moves them to rural Arkansas so he can realize his dream of starting a lucrative farm. Having already been in the United States for a while, he and his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), have set ideas of what a successful American life should look like. But Jacob’s optimism, alongside his childrens’ veneration of America, stops him from questioning whether the life he is grasping for is even attainable in the first place. 

When immigrants first began settling in the United States, the American Dream consisted of venturing out West and staking out a section of land to call one’s own. The thought was: once you have land and can support yourself, you have attained the ideal American life. But things did not continue that way for very long, and they certainly are not that way now.

During the Dust Bowl, for example, farmers were kicked off their land and subsequently forced to carve out a brand new and unprecedented standard of American life. Enslaved Black people, too, were not presented with the land they were promised when they were finally given their freedom. So Americans were faced with the harsh reality that land, alone, could no longer be the gold standard. The final frontier had to be something new.

Despite moving to a remarkably changed America, Jacob still holds onto this antiquated idea of land as the ultimate signifier of prestige. But his old, settler ideals are at odds with new principles of capitalism; Jacob does not stake out the land to provide vegetables for his family to eat, but rather from which to make money. 

The tension inherent in the American Dream in Minari is presented in the form of Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), who comes to stay with the family to help out with the children. Soonja is not interested in achieving the American Dream but rather is content with holding onto her own traditional Korean roots. 

At first, the children push back against Soonja, especially young David (Alan Kim), whose devotion to America is not dissimilar to his father’s: he wears cowboy boots around the house and drinks Mountain Dew religiously. He is outspoken about his dislike for Soonja and tells his parents he doesn’t want to share a room with her because she “smells like Korea,” though he has never actually been there. He also tells her she isn’t a real grandma because she doesn’t bake cookies, once again categorically rejecting non-American customs.

But Soonja ultimately succeeds where her son-in-law does not. After Jacob fails to grow a sufficient amount of crops due to a lack of water, Soonja scatters Korean Minari seeds by a creek near the family’s house, and they quickly proliferate into rich, leafy vegetables. Perhaps Soonja succeeds as a farmer because she does not insist on transforming gardening into an industry. Or, perhaps it is because she is not intent on veering from her heritage. Maybe it is a mix of both. Regardless – and perhaps most importantly – Soonja does not look to a country that no longer exists, a country where this abstract dream can be achieved by those who simply work hard, keep their eyes down, and pull their boot-straps up. That America died long ago.

At the end of Minari, Jacob’s big plan backfires – literally. The shed where he stores his vegetables catches fire and crumbles into ashes, just like the future that could never really exist. Like at the beginning of the film, he is left with nothing but his family, the same thing he would have had he not embarked on his journey of prosperity. 

Minari is shot in a way that reflects Jacob’s unrelenting optimism. The daylight is almost jarring in its brightness, while the colors are saturated to a point of near surrealism. The soundtrack, too, sweeps through the subconscious of the film like an old Western. 

For the entirety of Minari, Jacob never ceases chasing the American Dream with hope and certainty that only matches up with a caricatured version of the country and that might only be trusted by someone who knows America only from stories and films and has not lived here long enough to be jaded by the deep gullies of capitalism. Jacob’s vision of America is what inspires people to come to America, and stay in America. It is also what allows America to continue being the self-sustaining beast that it is.

Nomadland, on the other hand, pinpoints the American Dream from a more experienced, and subsequently more jaded and pessimistic, vantage point. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), who turns to a nomadic, van-dwelling lifestyle after a recession leaves her house-less. Like Minari, Nomadland is heavily centered around land. For nomads, the land is their home. But, unlike Minari, the nomads do not attempt to make anything of the land they live on, nor do they look to it as some sort of American paradise that can make them successful and fulfilled. In fact, the land is not of much interest to them. It is merely the only way they can live, at least in part, outside of society.

Indeed, the land of Nomadland is different from the land of Minari. Unlike the latter, which continually points to its rich, fertile soil, Nomadland‘s landscape proliferates with rocks. Not only are rocks part of a prevalent theme at the emotional core of the film – a rolling stone gathers no moss, as the saying goes – but it also points to the actuality of the state of the American Dream. Nothing can grow on these rocks. The land is just for looking at. Like the country the nomads are in, it is unlikely to give anything back. 

Perhaps a more realistic interpretation of the modern farm in Nomadland is the Amazon warehouse. When we are introduced to Fern, she is a seasonal worker at the company, the layout of which is as close to the equivalent of the demand and profit of a 19th-century farm as one might get in the contemporary world. Zhao depicts the Amazon warehouse as a large, flat rectangle with columns of products, which symbolically mimic rows of fruits and vegetables. 

But, in many ways, Amazon is the polar opposite of a farm. It represents the endgame of industrialization and capitalism, as well as mass uniformity. In an Amazon warehouse, everything is inside boxes. Everything is the same. From the outside, there is no way to really tell what’s inside. But Fern is so jaded from her experience in the capitalistic machine that she really doesn’t seem to have a problem with working for the organization that infamously treats its workers poorly. “It’s a good job,” she says. An irony presents itself here, too, as Amazon is actually presented as a good job in Nomadland. 

This is notably different from the way Jessica Bruder, author of the film’s source material, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, describes what it’s like to be an Amazon worker. Bruder recounts what a seventy-seven-year-old worker told her about their own experience: “They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up, work hard, and are basically slave labor.” This raises the concern that even Zhao was not able to exist outside of the capitalist matrix when telling the story of nomads. After all, is it possible to realistically portray Amazon in a time when Amazon is one of the main financiers of online film distribution?

The attitude of a hesitancy to speak out against capitalism reflects Fern’s opinion of the American Dream, which is to say she doesn’t believe there is such a thing. Unlike Jacob, Fern does not believe that anything is possible, and she attempts to live outside of society to escape that. But even this outsider model ultimately isn’t possible — the nomads are reliant on government-funded welfare, upkeep on their vehicles, food from the grocery store, and jobs they work along the way. Some nomads might indeed believe that they are achieving true outsidership from the nightmare of the illusory American Dream, but Fern doesn’t seem to fall into that trap. 

The final shot of Nomadland borrows from John Ford’s The Searchers, in which John Wayne famously walks through his doorway and back into the wilderness. This juxtaposition offers insight into just how much America has really changed. The final shot of The Searchers is filled with hope: the frontier was still real in America when Wayne wandered out into it. Fern, on the other hand, finds no such luck. 

But it’s not that self-sufficiency is not possible in contemporary America, it just has a dramatically different model than it used to. Where people used to have the prospect of staking out their own land, they now have to buy that land, which requires being wealthy from the outset. Self-sufficiency is for the upper-class, and the nomads aren’t that. So they settle for the illusion of self-sufficiency while relying on capitalism to keep their heads above water.

The cinematography of Nomadland also reflects its pessimistic nature. Unlike Minari’s vibrant colors, Nomadland is pale and washed out, and shrouds its frames in blacks and greys. But, although they are told from wildly different perspectives, Minari and Nomadland don’t, at their core, diverge from one another. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. The former tells the story of the beginning of the American Dream when one succumbs to the illusion that anything is possible. The latter tells the story of the end of it, of the precise moment when one realizes that the Dream in question is unattainable.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.