Disrupting American Mythologies: ‘Nomadland’ (2020) and Tales of Manifest Destiny

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland digs deep into the peripheries of modern society. Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction novel of the same name, the film tracks vandweller Fern (Frances McDormand), across America following her redundancy and the recent death of her husband. As a film at the margins, Nomadland showcases another powerful performance from McDormand (who scores a third Academy Award for Best Actress in this role), stripped-down cinematography from Joshua James Richards, and a melancholic score by Ludovico Einaudi. More profoundly, the film disrupts the mythologies of modern American life by unearthing the relevance of Manifest Destiny.

Throughout the film, we are presented with travelling shots of the ever-changing American landscape. Fern moves from point to point, revelling in the lost traditions of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. She forges a path through the barren wastelands of Nevada, the mountainous aura of South Dakota and the scenic horizons in Arizona. Fern’s initial priority is her search for work, travelling the country to support her recent forced lifestyle change. Moving across states she takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfilment centre, before later working as a camp host at Badlands National Park, a restaurant assistant in South Dakota and a sugar beet processor close to California. To capture Fern’s new precarious living, Zhao and Richards used wide-angle lenses to create an expansive field of view. These lenses provoke different moods depending on Fern’s interactions. During close-ups with fellow nomads the camera produces a lived-in feeling that immerses the viewer in the vagabond lifestyle. In the more grand panoramic shots, the background reveals the rugged and textured qualities of the land around here. 

These types of techniques call our attention to the environment that surrounds the characters whilst simultaneously recalling deep-rooted imagery that arcs back to tales of America’s Manifest Destiny. Coined in 1845, this phrase relates to the belief that the United States was destined to dominate and spread democracy across the North American continent. On the road, the expanding wilderness brings to light a mythic nostalgia that was galvanised by a love for adventure. This subtext is directly referenced when we are introduced to Fern’s sister, Dolly (Melissa Smith). During a barbeque scene, she proclaims that “I think that what the nomads are doing is not that different to what the pioneers did. I think Fern is part of an American tradition”. Zhao’s early hints at Manifest Destiny come to the fore. Fern is now the subject of a debate between modern-day nomadism and traditions of exploration. 

This debate allows for an introspection into how the freedom of the nomad, traveller or drifter became an obsession in American cinema. One will be reminded of foundational Westerns such as John Ford’s Stagecoach and Howard Hawks’ Red River, or action dramas like Emperor of the North. We remember heroic protagonists taking part in westward advance, “freight-hopping” or cattle driving who lack a fixed habitation. At the centre of this obsession lies the nomadic lifestyle, adapting to the harsh environmental conditions. 

On the edge of a cliff, an older man and woman sit on deckchairs and eat a meal together. The landscape around them is highlighted in shadows and golden sun.
Image courtesy of Highwayman Films

This lifestyle essentially recycles the romantic myth of unity integral to Manifest Destiny. An individual taking part in territorial expansionism stands as a symbol of national unity. We notice how the travellers cooperating in Stagecoach represent a heroic civilisation fighting against the barbarous native population. In Emperor of the North, it is Lee Marvin’s hobo that claims the transcontinental railroad as a home for all drifters. In the end, nomadic meanderings reinforce monomyths and lend themselves to the resolve of the hero’s journey. Individuals venture into the unknown to go beyond their routine lives. They are posed with challenges and temptations geared towards a point of revelation or atonement as the hero returns home with closure. 

Coupled together, a “cowboy ethos” and Western unity re-confirm the core principles of Manifest Destiny. Before our eyes, they bring to life the forward moving ideology of America’s development. The monomythic character of the nomad as the self-made hero creates an American preservation that everyone can thrive in. Nevertheless, this was only a projection that hid the true horror of Manifest Destiny. Even the Western genre itself in the 1930s and 40s produced a mythic screen memory of modern America’s founding story. Historically, these films swept aside both the genocide of Native Americans and the Mexican identity as a threat to the integrity of the nation. On second viewing, transcontinental unity born out of American colonialism strikes us as fractured, based on the uprooting and removal of entire native populations.  

Enter Zhao’s Nomadland. The film is both in conversation with a romantic vision of the nomad, but it is also ready to challenge this tradition as it echoes the broken American dreams of Wim Wenders’ road movie, Paris, Texas, alongside the ruthless misfortunes of Western expanse in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. To see the potential of Zhao’s nomadism, we can read it in tandem with the thoughts of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In their voiced criticism of capitalism, they described the nomad not as a symbol of unity but as a disrupting figure that reveals inequalities of modern society. Nomadland recoils away from a monomythic narrative that seeks unity, and instead delves into the excitement of the structureless. 

Zhao brilliantly avoids the revelatory moment of monomythic narratives by creating an ending that gives rise to a sense of déjà vu. The film intentionally loops the narrative back on itself only to reopen it again. We join the story when Fern loses her job due to the closure of the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada. At the end, we are right back where we started as Fern returns to Empire and the old plant. What seems even more impressive about this sense of déjà vu is how Zhao repeats several of the same shots from the opening scene. Fern clears out a storage locker in the snowy scenery, enters her van, and drives across a long winding road in the opening sequence. At the end, Fern returns to the same snowy scenery to finish removing the items from the locker before one final shot of her van against the backdrop of the same winding road lingers on screen. 

Surprisingly, it is not clear how long has passed between these two points as though the narrative does not seem bound by a set linear timeline. Instead, we are asked to contemplate how a sense of déjà vu resists feelings of closure. The end does not imply a destination. Fern has not completed her own monomythic journey, and her adventures do not confirm national unity. Returning to the beginning becomes just another in-between point on her journey. It is only another dwelling in relation to all other dwellings she has made so far, as Fern sets off in her van again and the credits begin to roll.

Amidst a gloomy mountainous landscape, a white van drives down an open road. The landscape around it is scattered with snow.
Image courtesy of Highwayman Films.

The déjà vu sensation marks the bookends of Zhao’s open-ended narrative. Without any clear destination, Fern’s movements disrupt the possibility of closure. This reverberates throughout the film as the existential undercurrent to the nomadic lifestyle. It even manifests in the film’s dialogue when YouTuber Bob Wells tells Fern: “one of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. I’ve met hundreds of people out here, and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I just say I’ll see you down the road”. Fern’s adventure is emblematic of an attempt to resist finality. To say one’s journey is dictated by the destination seems too simple for Zhao. Her complex vision of the nomad was greatly influenced by a metropolitan upbringing: “Having grown up in the cities of China and England, I’ve always been deeply drawn to the open road – an idea I find to be quintessentially American – the endless search for what’s beyond the horizon”. Although Zhao alludes to a unique American experience of the road trip, her film is not one that clings to the obsession of a destination. 

The experience Zhao aims for is one that engages thoroughly with the modern-day repercussions of Manifest Destiny. She excites us about a romantic lifestyle with boundless opportunities, but uses this lifestyle to question the mythology of the West. As a result, the grand panoramas of Nevada or Arizona appear less a celebration of the open spaces. Instead, they more aptly conjure up a transient expression of those who have been forgotten by a fast-moving technological society. 

The fabric of Western states comes to embody the absence of native populations, leaving only fragments of a colonised civilisation behind. Wells’ monologues comment on this sense of marginalisation. He briefly explains how this lifestyle is not a simple escapism but a realisation of the inequality at the heart of America. “We not only accept the tyranny of the dollar, the tyranny of the marketplace, we embrace it. We gladly throw the yolk of the tyranny of the dollar on and live by it our whole lives”. Zhao’s interpretation is one that on the surface resembles a devotion to picturesque vistas. Meanwhile the longer her camera lingers on these deserted open spaces, the more we come to question the damaging effects of modern society. In previous interviews, Zhao describes her approach to filmmaking as one which puts her ‘constantly not on the right side of history’. Evidently Nomadland marks a series of attempts to feature real-life protagonists as an entry point into America’s historical mythologies, furthering the work done on Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider

Echoing Deleuze and Guattari, we come to notice Zhao’s disruptive nomadism. She disrupts images of unity to reveal the American West as underpinned by suffering and trauma. The excavation brings to light the traces of Manifest Destiny that have been absorbed into the destructive patterns of contemporary society. What is born out of this disruptive nomadism, however, is a glimmer of hope. A type of character emerges that can truly express the potential of the nomad by resisting the rallying call of the monomythic hero. If one thing is made clear about this character, it is not that living faithful to a life of constant movement is a means of escaping the trauma of the past. On the contrary, it is about always acknowledging its saturated presence. Citing Deleuze and Guattari, Edward S. Casey tells us that the nomad “does not move to a dwelling but dwells by moving”. Zhao may have offered a glimpse into this by not only critiquing a repressed nostalgia for the nomadic lifestyle, but observing how the nomad disrupts the surface of a fixed American identity.

Header image courtesy of Highwayman Films