The movies of the 1930s mostly offered an escape from the reality of the Depression, with musicals or comedies or gangster pics. The movie goer would plunk down their couple of dimes or a quarter and escape the plight of the country for a double-feature with a newsreel and maybe a cartoon or a short. It wasn’t until the end of that decade and the beginning of the 1940s that movies started addressing the devastation of the Depression in films like Tobacco Road, Sullivan’s Travels, and Meet John Doe. As decades separated the pain of that experience from the current world, films felt free to explore that time. Movies like Bound for Glory, Seabiscuit, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and many more could deal with the Depression from the safe distance of a half-century or more.
One of the first to deal with that time in a powerful way was 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel from the previous year. Henry Fonda gave a career-defining performance as everyman Tom Joad, leaving the Dust Bowl-devastated Oklahoma with his family to become itinerant farm workers in California, traveling to follow the harvest times. Directed by John Ford, the cinematography by the great Gregg Toland evoked the realistic Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange.
In 2008, the stock market again tanked as the housing bubble burst, and while the Great Recession wasn’t quite as stark as the Great Depression, the devastation people faced was just a real, and as long-term. In 2017, Jessica Bruder detailed how older Americans who’d lost their homes adopted a transient lifestyle similar to what happened in the 1930s. “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” detailed how the golden years for many seniors had turned into “the wander years,” as the New York Times Book Review put it. Now the story has been brought to the screen in a truly remarkable way.
The movie begins in Empire, Nevada, a company town that existed to support the US Gypsum plant located there. The company’s main product is dry board for construction, and in 2011, in the wake of the end of the housing boom, the company closed the plant. Within 6 months, Empire became a modern ghost town, with its zip code retired by the U.S. Postal Service. We meet Fern (Frances McDormand) at her storage locker as she loads some belongings into her 2001 Ford Econoline van and heads out on the road. Empire had been her world, the place where she’d buried her husband, and now it was gone.
What follows in Chloe Zhao’s starkly beautiful film is a mixture of cinema verité and narrative story, following Fern as she travels between jobs and learns how to survive on the road. The jobs become a part of the story, be it filling orders at Amazon during the Christmas season, cooking at a restaurant in Wall Drugstore, or maintaining an RV park. McDormand actually did the jobs and spent time living in the van. There are also gatherings of nomads such as one in Arizona that provide a support system.
Zhao and McDormand were accepted into the nomad community, with several playing themselves. There’s input from Bob Wells, who calls himself a vandweller and is essentially an expert on the nomad life – you can watch videos he’s done explaining the lifestyle on YouTube – but you also get to know people like Linda and Swankie. Except for McDormand and one or two others, everyone who appears on screen goes by their real names. (Some of the nomads didn’t recognize McDormand and treated Fern as a real person.)
The one other professional actor in the film is David Strathairn, playing the role of – no surprise – David, who becomes close to Fern over the course of the year. David has been on the road for a while, but while he and Fern are working at Wall Drug, his son tracks him down. The son and his wife are about to have a child and would like David to be part of their life. Fitting with the film, David’s son is played by Strathairn’s son, Tay.
A major character in the film is the country itself, and Zhao captures its beauty, be it the high desert of Nevada, the Badlands of South Dakota, or the California coast. Nomadland has both the elegiac tone of loss, blended with a fierce determination to carry on regardless of what happens. In a way it evokes the spirit of the westerns, with vans substituting for Conestoga wagons pulled by horses.
Nomadland has, as of this writing, collected over 200 awards from critics and film societies, including Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director. For the upcoming Oscars, it has already made some history. McDormand, who also produced the film, is nominated for Best Actress along with the film’s Best Picture nod – the first actress to receive those two nominations for a picture. It also received four other nominations, for Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography. While the cinematography was done by Joshua James Richards, the other three nominations are for Zhao (along with a Best Picture nomination for producing). She’s the third person, and the first woman, to receive nominations in all those categories. The other two people? Joel and Ethan Coen, McDormand’s husband and brother-in-law, respectively. One other bit of trivia – this is the first year that two women are nominated in the Best Director category, with Zhao being joined by Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.
Even without the award nominations, the film is a remarkable achievement. It lets the audience step inside the nomad world, to become involved with the people, to laugh with them and to cry with them. When the gatherings of nomads break up, they don’t say goodbye but rather “See you down the road.” After seeing the film, you may find yourself watching for them – down the road.