The lone wanderer is the iconic character of the Western. Two of the best films of the past year present variations on this
character. Paul Greengrass' News of the World is a more-or-less traditional Western saga, albeit one sensitive to early-21st-century sensibilities. Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, conversely, could not be more contemporary or topical.
News of the World, adapted by Greengrass and Luke Davies from a novel by Paulette Jiles, has a plot device that I, at least, have never
encountered before. In the Texas of 1870, Greengrass and Davies tell us, news traveled slowly and newspapers were rare. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Civil
War veteran and former printer, is what passed in that time for a news anchorman: he travels from town to town with whatever newspapers he can gather, reading to news-starved
townsfolk for ten cents per listener. The job is not only low-paying but dangerous. Audiences, just five years past Appomattox, were even more easily roiled than those
today, and it's as much as Kidd's life is worth to even mention President Grant or the Fifteenth Amendment. But that's nothing compared with the bandits, murderers, and
general run of sadists that Kidd confronts between destinations.
On his way to a gig, Kidd stumbles across a horrific sight: a hanged man. Hiding behind the dead man's wrecked wagon is a blonde
preadolescent girl in Kiowa dress (Helena Zengel). Papers the dead man was carrying tell the story: the girl's name is Johanna Leonberger, she was kidnapped by the Kiowas
six years before, and the man was on his way to deliver Johanna to her aunt and uncle, her only surviving white family. There is no one available to take charge of Johanna,
so Kidd is forced to take her himself.
Through Kidd's friend and lover Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel), who speaks Kiowa, we learn that Johanna's Kiowa name is Cicada and that her
Kiowa family is all dead. Together, Kidd and Johanna find out what each other is made of, facing dangers such as a pedophilic outlaw gang, a murderous militia, and a
near-fatal accident that leaves them stranded.
News of the World is a strong film both dramatically and visually. In its
narrative sweep and its theme of reconciliation between white and Indian cultures, it reminds me of another fine recent Western, Scott Cooper's Hostiles. In the characters of Kidd and Johanna, Greengrass tells a moving,
engrossing story of two disparate people who, thrown together by danger and tragedy, cross barriers of culture and language to form a close bond.
The technical credits of News of the World match the strength of the
direction and screenplay. These include the production design of David Crank, the haunting music by James Newton Howard, and especially the
photography of Dariusz Wolski, which is nothing short of magnificent. These and other crew members help Greengrass create a frontier Texas that
is half glorious, half malevolent.
News of the World has a large and accomplished cast; I especially liked
Marvel, Michael Angelo Covino as the leader of the outlaw gang, and Fred Hechinger as a young militiaman who proves helpful to Kidd and Johanna.
Hanks is in his All-American hero mode here, and he is the greatest living master of that style, the true heir to James Stewart and Henry Fonda. In
Hanks' hands, Kidd's flaws and weaknesses only serve to make his courage and decency more believable.
Zengel, who as of this writing has yet to celebrate her thirteenth birthday, is
Hanks' equal. From her first terrified scene, Zengel shows herself to be a screen natural, investing the audience fully in Johanna's reluctant
reintroduction to a society she no longer understands. The centerpiece of Zengel's performance is her return to the cabin where her parents and
siblings were murdered. Her discovery of a stick-figure doll, which so easily could have been a sentimental cliché, becomes a scene of elemental power
as Zengel plays it.
Frances McDormand has a similar scene toward the end of Nomadland. As
Fern, the film's main character, she visits the tract house where she lived with her late husband. Not only the house but the entire town—Empire,
Nevada—was deserted when the gypsum mine, the only local industry, was closed. Even the zip code was discontinued. The house is just as she
described it earlier—just a small, plain house, but with a backyard that opens into the desert, the view stretching to the mountains. Fern stares from her
former back door into that desert; she makes no sign of what she is thinking, but by that point she doesn't have to.
Based on a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland tells the story of
"houseless" people, mostly though not all retirees, who travel across the West year-round, living in their campers and seeking seasonal work to
augment their meager Social Security checks. Their main social contacts are with each other, as they congregate periodically in campgrounds and RV
parks. "Workhorses have to gather together and take care of each other," says Bob Wells, a real-life nomad, author, and founder of the Rubber Tramp
Rendezvous, playing himself.
Nearly plotless, Nomadland follows Fern across the Western landscape after
she leaves Empire. She packs shipping boxes at an Amazon distribution center, joins the assembly line at a sugar beet processing plant, works as a
camp host at Badlands National Park. It is at the park that she meets fellow rubber tramp Dave (David Strathairn). Fern and Dave awake long-dormant
romantic feelings in each other, but soon Dave's grown son James (Tay Strathairn, David's real-life son) appears, inviting his father to live with him
and his wife in California. Will Fern be willing to join Dave in a life off the road?
This is the only real conflict in the story of Nomadland, which mainly
concerns itself with the challenges Fern and her fellow nomads face. We see in Fern's experiences that a flat tire in an isolated spot or an unexpected bill
for an engine overhaul can spell ruin. But we also see the exaltation Fern feels when bathing in a mountain stream or exploring a redwood forest. We
see the brief episode where Fern is forced to stay with her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith); Fern loves her sister but doesn't really get along with her.
Fern is no misanthrope, but she is happiest alone. She is the latest in a string of ornery heroines McDormand has always excelled in playing, from Fargo to Olive Kitteridge to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Fern is the most solitary and introverted of them, content only when on the
road, headed toward the horizon.
Chloe Zhao, a native of Beijing, specializes in delineating crucial aspects of
the American character. In this she resembles one of her influences, the Taiwanese Ang Lee. Her previous film, The Rider, depicted the lonely
courage of a rodeo cowboy who, because of a catastrophic injury, can never ride again. In many ways, Fern is a sister to The Rider's Brady Blackburn,
determined to keep going in the face of losing almost everything.
Zhao also excels in getting fine performances from non-professional actors. She cast The Rider entirely from actual residents of the Pine Ridge
Reservation in South Dakota, and most of the cast of Nomadland is comprised of real-life rubber tramps. They blend in seamlessly with the
great actors McDormand and Strathairn. This is only one of many aspects of Nomadland that, like The Rider, make it feel like American life as it is lived.
Another is the photography of Joshua James Richards, Zhao's life partner and cinematographer, which is poetic and compelling whether presenting a
gas station in the rain or a sequoia-spiked sky.
Nomadland doesn't make any didactic points about the poverty that
underlies the lives of most of the nomads, but again it doesn't need to. The film is an effective act of advocacy on behalf of those forced to the road, but
simultaneously it shows how they make a virtue of their predicament. What they lose in security, they gain in freedom—as good a description as any of
the American pioneer spirit. Bob Wells makes a salient point: "One of the good things about this life is that there's no final goodbye." At the end, we
don't feel we are saying goodbye to Fern; we feel that we will see her later, and that there will be good times when we do.
To go slightly off-topic, I was less than pleased about the circumstances under which I was forced to see News of the World and Nomadland. For
the former, I had to wait until Amazon Prime reduced the rental price from $19.99—50 percent over the cost of a full-price, pre-pandemic theater
ticket. For the latter, I had to subscribe to Hulu. I will spare you a jeremiad on usury, but I look forward to the time—which may even have come when
you read this—that I can enter a theater again.