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McDormand’s hard-bitten loner through a modern American badland in which the saloon and the sheriff’s office have been replaced by the RV park and the Amazon warehouse.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.
For Bruder, at least, the journey is almost done. She first reported on the US’s “van-dweller” or “workamper” community for Harper’s magazine, which laid the ground for her 2017 book. She is serving as a consulting producer and, from time to time, a spokesperson for the picture as it trundles through awards season. Bruder likens the experience to moving a bucket of water from one place to the next. Lots of responsibility. Lots of potential for spillage.
Nomadland clears centre stage for an invented heroine: Fern, a widow who takes to the road claiming that she is “not homeless, just houseless”, shuttling from one seasonal gig to the next. But the film folds her in with several of the nomads from Bruder’s book, all playing versions of themselves. These include white-bearded Bob Wells, the founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) – probably the largest gathering of nomads in the world – and the no-nonsense survivor Charlene Swankie, who bustles across the RTR’s campsite with her arm in a sling. Linda May dreams of buying a plot of land and building an earthship – a sustainable, self-sufficient home made from natural and recycled materials. Until then, she is stuck with the Squeeze Inn, her 9ft x 6ft (2.7m x 1.8m) trailer, broiling through the summers, freezing through the winters; another zero-hours tiddler in the US’s growing low-cost labour pool.
In researching Nomadland, Bruder trailed the migrants between the beet fields of North Dakota and the camp grounds of California in her own camper van. Most, she says, were keen to frame the lifestyle in the soaring rhetoric of the old west. They cast themselves as outlaws, cowboys, pioneers. They spoke of freedom and opportunity, individualism and self-reliance. Only later did she start hearing about all the rest: the lost jobs, ruinous divorces and foreclosed homes that put them on the road to begin with. They printed the legend, then they told her the facts. “The initial stories gave them a sense of agency,” Bruder says. “We all look to stories to understand what we are doing. But stories are always an imperfect match.”
The film-maker John Ford used to claim that he was good friends with Wyatt Earp and that, therefore, his depiction of the gunfight at the OK Corral was 100% accurate, a matter of historical record. The truth was that Ford was a myth-maker, a spinner of tales, his wild west a fiction thrown over the terrain. In film after film, he took the lowly American cowboy – an itinerant labourer, whose work was seasonal and precarious – and cast him in the role of the heroic lone wolf. In so doing, he provided a convenient cover story for all the cowboys that followed.
Bruder understands the romance associated with the nomad lifestyle, in part because it dovetails with the cowboy lifestyle. But the reality, she says, is not romantic at all. “We want this sense of boundless opportunity, the sense that down the road is something better. But it doesn’t play out: look where it’s got us, look where the planet is now. We think we can keep growing indefinitely. But we’re on a rock with finite resources, with stagnant wages and rising housing costs, with growing inequality.
“Rugged individualism can only get us so far. I’ve seen that on the road: people who you’d think of as cowboys, but who love being together and sharing meals, having a chilli feed. I have a hippy tendency. I favour collaboration. The idea of a self-made person who goes it alone: we all know it’s an utter myth.”
In Andrea Arnold’s giddying American Honey, itinerant workers sell subscriptions door to door across the midwest. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace shows a father and daughter hiding out in the woods. Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy leaves its heroine stranded on the road to Alaska. So Nomadland is not alone. It is part of a vibrant subgenre of western – modern-dressed, female-centred and defined by a mood of pensive restlessness – that is in turn connected to a classic Hollywood tradition. The finest westerns, after all, are self-questioning and self-critical. The last shot of The Searchers provides the genre’s most telling image: John Wayne in the doorway, shut out of the homestead. Explicitly or otherwise, the message is plain. Cowboy dreams are for suckers. They point the way to a lonely life.
Once, long ago, the big lie came easier. The magnetic west exerted a powerful pull. There was a frontier to carve out, people to slaughter, an ocean to reach. A man could convince himself that he was running towards something as opposed to fleeing. These days, it is not so simple. Wayne’s spiritual offspring are frequently depicted as lost and damaged, in flight from everything (Jack Nicholson sneaking aboard the logging truck at the end of Five Easy Pieces; Harry Dean Stanton haunting the freeway in the closing shots of Paris, Texas).
Bruder explains that the current generation of van-dwellers are – in part, at least – a consequence of the 2008 financial crash and the wave of evictions that followed. The ripple effect of the pandemic is likely to put more vehicles on the road. The larger this group becomes, the harder it will be for society to ignore. But the evidence suggests that the nomads remain unengaged and apolitical, neither Democrat or Republican. By and large, they don’t vote, because they don’t see the point. “They don’t believe the cavalry is coming,” Bruder says.
In the book of Nomadland, Bruder installs John Steinbeck as a touchstone. She tells how the van-dwellers love Travels With Charley, the author’s tale of a counter-clockwise road trip, from Maine to California to Texas to New York. She references The Grapes of Wrath, with its account of Depression-era migrants on their way to California.
But the Steinbeck the film most made me think of was the last few pages of The Red Pony, when the grandfather recounts leading a wagon train across the country and then wonders what on earth the people are meant to do after that. “There’s no place to go. There’s the ocean to stop you. There’s a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them.” Films such as Nomadland and American Honey are not anti-westerns so much as frustrated westerns, arrested westerns. They are post-revisionist and post-frontier, the cinematic equivalent of backwash. It is as though each hit the coastline and was thrown into reverse.
I like Martin Scorsese’s take on that famous Ford image: the gunslinger in the doorway, society’s exile. “In its final moment, The Searchers becomes a ghost story,” he says, with Wayne’s character “destined to wander for ever between the winds.” Bruder’s un-settlers are a bit like that themselves: not so much the descendants of the pioneers as their remains or their shadows. Tellingly, Zhao’s film shows them rattling around faded old tourist attractions (dinosaur parks, the National Grasslands visitor centre), poring over holiday slides and photo albums, listening to the antique hits of yesteryear. “I’ve spent too much of my life remembering,” says Fern. Towards the end, like Steinbeck’s old men, she arrives at the coastline and stares out at the sea.
How long-term successful is the nomad’s existence? Eventually you run out of gas, out of money. Your health starts to suffer. You can’t work like you did. This is the question that still nags at Bruder. “A lot of people seemed sanguine about the future and I was not,” she says. “I kept thinking: where does this go? From a selfish narrative standpoint, one of the reasons I decided to follow Linda May [in the book] was because she was reaching towards something, and that something was the earthship. Linda had a story, a direction. She wasn’t spacewalking. A lot of the others, they wanted to drive until they couldn’t drive any more, drive into the desert; they didn’t have a long-term plan. I worried about that a lot more than they did.”
Nomadland is on the last leg of its Oscar journey. Some of the main players are still on board. Others have jumped ship, moving on to fresh adventures. May used her acting fee to buy a plot in New Mexico and is reportedly laying the ground for her earthship. Swankie is on the road in Arizona; she sees no reason to quit. She tells me that she likes to think of her van as a big backpack on wheels. Living in nature, she adds, has restored her physical and mental health.
Over email, I ask Swankie to look into the future and describe her ideal life. She scoffs at the idea that such a thing exists. “If my van and my body hold up, I’ll continue as I am now,” she writes. “NOW. I basically live in the NOW. Seldom make plans for tomorrow. Get up in the morning, check the sunrise and weather, then do what seems to be the most important thing … It’s the greatest feeling of freedom ever.”
As they circle back across the US, Swankie, Wells and their fellow nomads run across people and places they have encountered before. Their work is seasonal, but regular. They materialise and disperse to the same loose annual schedule. Experience has taught these people to mistrust the clearcut finality of any separation or resolution. In the film, Wells explains that a real nomad never says goodbye. Instead they will always say: “I’ll see you down the road.” They figure that there are good odds they will bump into each other at the next packing gig or the next beet harvest, next month or next year, somewhere beyond the next sunset.
Nomadland is released on Disney+ on 30 April. The Baftas and the Oscars take place on 11 April and 25 April respectively.