Nomadland (2020)


Walt Whitman extolled the Open Road, a place in which the heroic refugee from some restricting Old World comes Over Here–arrives in the New World–and journeys on and on, meeting what D. H. Lawrence called Great Souls likewise thirsty for the New, the Journeyer forsaking (often gladly) a quiet life in a community because his or her freedom must surely arise from being on the Road. It’s entirely a Search. Whitman, gulping experience in the new byways, couldn’t get his fill of America–it was new, exciting, deadly, remote and Oh, so many other mandatory experiences. It’s why the American hero is often an orphan.

Some of Walt’s progeny:

Huck Finn runs away and rafts the mighty Mississippi: on the tide he meets the runaway slave, Jim, a fellow soul. Away from the nasty settlements on shore, they become brothers newly baptized in the Adventure.

Cooper’s Natty Bumppo takes the frontier road. His New World brothers–discovered in the tribes.

Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, she of the Scarlet Letter, dreams of setting forth westward from the Puritain world. She’d prefer the “trackless” wilderness.

Faulkner’s hunters in the 1800s in The Bear shed civilization in the pathways of the woods in the Mississippi Delta and live the American ideal of equality.

Jack Kerouac’s madcap people in On The Road race around America in souped-up Hudson V-8s and perform what Sal Paradise says is their mission in life: move! They literally cannot get enough experience.

John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, his life chronicled in four novels, usually chooses flight over fight, twice impulsively setting off on southbound freeways (or, if you will, running away) from small-town Pennsylvania for a Florida whose warmth, beaches and refuge for dreaming ever pull at him.

Joan Didion’s disturbed Maria Weyth patrols the LA freeways, perhaps seeking to come upon a break-out route.

Nomadland, winner of various movie awards, is all at once a truthful, bracing and sad film–one of the best in some time–that finally belongs to the American tradition of the Open Road. It is the story of what some have called “van life,” a subculture of Americans, usually verging on being down and out, who for one or another low-falutin’ reason (most often economic dislocation), sell everything, buy a van and, working seasonal low-paying jobs (e.g., in the massive Amazon distribution centers during the Holidays), drive around America, especially the deserts and the California coast, forming a loose-knit community. The national guru of van life is the graybeard, Bob Wells, who plays himself in the movie; he is a father figure par excellence, staging a conference once a year in one or another of the badlands; Wells and the van people have a redeeming saying: in their life on the road, they never tell anyone goodbye; they always say, “See you down the road.”

Frances McDormand is so good in the role of the uprooted wanderer, Fern, that it simply amazes: one of the great performances in recent years. She captures you in the first minute and holds you all the way through. Her odyssey begins with the death of her husband and the gypsum mine closure which literally shuts down the remote Nevada company town where she had worked for years. As she begins to drive around, living out of her small trailer, she comes to find some satisfaction as an itinerant; the lure increases; becoming a self-sufficient roadster more and more suits her. The idea of settling down again in a house and a routine becomes more and more unthinkable. Fern abhors what in the Fifties was called Square culture, a scathing term for Middle Class life. And she makes you see that the Road life isn’t without some credit. After all, Whitman saw it as a mixed affair: there was much to be said about traveling the Road.

Yet Nomadland has a sad gritty quality as well as a certain uplift: the van people are poor, work jobs no one else will take, can’t afford enough medical attention, and are separated from the cold nights often by old leaky metallic walls. They can’t be called homeless, but you wonder what small distance some of them might be from that pitiful state.

The young writer/director, Chloe Zhao, has enhanced McDormand’s wonderful acting with a crowd of believable characters and a jeweler’s eye for camera angle, backdrop, vista and cultural feature.

Don’t miss this one.