Chloé Zhao’s Academy Award-winning Nomadland is inspiring a new wave of tourism to unlikely locations in South Dakota, including the Reptile Gardens animal park and the cowboy-themed Wall Drug Store, both featured in the film.
With all respect to those attractions, it’s less the sites themselves than the context that’s selling them: Nomadland paints a picture of the Badlands area that seems appealing, even beautiful, even though the film depicts it as anything but a paradise for tourists. We’re not visiting these spots just for souvenirs, we’re looking for something of what Frances McDormand’s character found there: something deeper, even elegiac. A great movie can make us take a second look at a place (and its people) we’ve never given much though to, and to find charm and beauty in unexpected places.
These are movies to inspire journeys through America, but without the expected tourist stops. None of the journeys are uncomplicated. They’re visits to landscapes as varied as the people who live in the United States, with narratives as complex as our relationships.
The Straight Story (1999)
The most improbable of all David Lynch movies (eschewing heavy symbolism and disturbing imagery in favour of wistful scenery), The Straight Story sees Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) set out on the 386 km journey from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s recently suffered a stroke. Having no driver’s licence and limited means, he goes the only way he can: by lawn tractor. At about five miles per hour (the movie is based on the real-life Alvin Straight), Lynch and company find the strange beauty in the landscape (and sounds) of the vast midwest, and of its people.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
A very eclectic (and damaged) family hops in a yellow Volkswagen van in order to deliver their youngest daughter from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California, where Olive has qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant. The personality traits of the assembled family members can feel a little gimmicky, but the cast is terrific and there’s a solid message about the virtues of saying “fuck it” to conformity. The western roads that travel come to feel like a solid metaphor for the small triumphs and major disappointments so often present in the idea of the American dream.
It Happened One Night (1934)
It’s been called the first screwball comedy, and it’s a solid contender for the first great Hollywood road trip movie. Wealthy heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) hops a Greyhound in Florida in order to escape her overbearing father and reunite with her new (quasi-legal) husband in New York City. Along the way, she meets earthy reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who agrees to help Ellie if she’ll give him the story that’ll get him his old job back. Ellie’s (literally) traffic-stopping legs and an extremely precarious blanket divider in their motel room are among the ingredients that push Ellie and Peter together on a journey that unexpectedly ends at a motor court in Michigan.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is found walking on the shoulder of the highway near his home in Billings, Montana — he’d received a letter in the mail convincing him that he’d won a million dollar sweepstakes prize: one of those magazine things. The marketing agency’s address is in Lincoln, Nebraska, over 1,287 km away. After Woody takes off a second time, his son David decides to take him on the trip, stopping off for an awkward family reunion along the way. Director Alexander Payne’s black-and-white photography is gorgeous — shabby houses, townie bars, and these stark, flat landscapes have never seemed more appealing.
Queen & Slim (2009)
It’s tempting to relate Queen & Slim to something like Bonnie & Clyde (the title even invites the comparison), but the pair in that classic 60s film were criminals, where the Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya characters here are fugitives through no real fault of their own: when the two are pulled over by an overzealous and gun-happy white cop following a bad Tinder date, a scuffle leaves the police officer dead. They become something like folk heroes on their twisty-turny trip from Ohio to Cuba. Director Melina Matsoukas takes her time with that journey, but some of the film’s most evocative imagery takes place in and around New Orleans, where the two get just a tiny bit of breathing room. Given the fraught history of Black Americans driving the country, it’s probably not surprising that so few traditional American “road trip” movies involve Black characters, and the ones that do, like Queen & Slim, tend toward darker themes and questions.
The Rider (2017)
Nomadland director Chloé Zhao’s sophomore film, The Rider, evokes a not-dissimilar feel with its setting in the South Dakota Badlands. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) is a former rodeo star struggling following the traumatic brain injury that ended his career as it was barely getting started. Even as his family and doctors warn him to stop, he develops a determination to, literally, get back in the saddle — but don’t worry, this isn’t the kind of movie where things are as easy, nor as pat, as that description implies. Chloé Zhao contrasts the beauty of the wide-open skies and landscapes with the poverty and problems of the people who call the Badlands home. Her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is also set on the Pine Ridge Rez and is similarly great — hopefully she’ll bring that style to her upcoming Marvel movie.
Into the Wild (2007)
Who among us hasn’t dreamed of wandering off into the wilderness and living off the land? I mean, not me…but who else among us? Emile Hirsch plays Chris McCandless, a real-life nomadic adventurer who was the subject of the Jon Krakauer book on which this film is based. Just after his college graduation, McCandless destroys all of his ID and heads out in his Datsun to travel the country, cutting almost all of his old ties. The film follows him from Atlanta, to Arizona, to California and, eventually, to Denali National Park in Alaska and, though his story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, the appeal of chucking it all and exploring is real.
Old Joy (2006)
Director Kelly Reichardt’s movies (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, First Cow) frequently invoke the spirit of the road trip, even when the characters aren’t going very far. Here, it’s two old friends who reunite for a camping trip into the Cascades east of Portland, Oregon. Though they’re each pushing 40, only Kurt (Will Oldham) is determined to hold on to his hippie-ish lifestyle, while for Mark (Daniel London), the trip is a just a break from his now settled life. There’s a lot of relationship drama, and just as much unsaid, amid the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest and, in particular, the very appealing Bagby Hot Springs.
Reese Witherspoon plays the real-life (and appropriately named) Cheryl Strayed, who, in 1995, left her Minneapolis home to hike an 161 km portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (a common goal among the sporty and adventurous; less so for the inexperienced, as was the case with Strayed). The film contrasts the character’s flashbacks to the death of her mother and difficult divorce with the sometimes life-threatening challenges of hiking the wilderness with little preparation (the first time she tries to cook food, she learns that she’s brought the wrong kind of fuel). Strayed’s journey looks less like an escape than a trial-by-fire, a way to confront and burn away some of the darkness of her past. That idea has its own unique appeal.
Goodbye Solo (2008)
Though the movie’s plot revolves around a unique road trip, its heart is rooted in Winston-Salem North Carolina, where a Senegalese cab driver (Solo, played Souléymane Sy Savané) picks up a world-weary old man (Red West) who wants a one-way trip to Blowing Rock, a high peak with enormous updrafts, and a roughly two-hour journey. Solo intuits the old man’s intent and decides to introduce him to his family with the hope of reigniting his love of life. They’re each changed by the journey and by a fresh look at the city and its environs, though not in obvious ways, and without an easy resolution.
On the Road (2012)
While On the Road, an adaptation of Jack Keroac’s essential Beat-era novel, got mixed reviews on the whole, the absolutely gorgeous and great performances capture much of the appeal of the novel: the feel of tossing road maps and alarm clocks out the window and hitting the open road at the height of the late-40s/early-50s jazz renaissance. The movie doesn’t quite capture the novel’s benzedrine-fuelled energy, but nails the look and absolutely conveys something of the fantasy of putting aside convention to live on something like your own terms.
The Last Detail (1976)
One of the sweetest movies to go into detail exploring a corner of America was, at the time, considered among the crudest. In 1976, no film had ever used the word “fuck” nearly so often, and director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne struggled to get the film made, the script being considered unreasonably profane. It’s probably not going to bother too many people in 2021, and what stands out is the humanity of the story of two Navy lifers tasked with escorting a shy young sailor from Norfolk, Virginia to the Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. When the two men learn that the sailor (Randy Quaid, in the days before YouTube rants) is getting an eight-year sentence for stealing $US40 ($54)…so they decide to show him the time of his life. There’s a matter-of-factness to the filming of the chilly northeast setting, but the movie’s good heart and the (usually) fun that the leads are having getting drunk, and high, and laid, makes the grey environment seem unexpectedly appealing.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Their scenic journey across the south to the Grand Canyon is one of film’s most memorable — even knowing the ending (which, c’mon, we all know by now, right?), there’s still tremendous appeal in Thelma and Louise’s last ride. It’s not just the open road and the wide-open country, it’s the sense of refusing to take anymore bullshit and do what you want to do while you can.
I’ve no doubt that Sideways inspired a ton of tourism, at least as much as Nomadland. The story of a depressed wine snob and his slightly goofy actor friend travelling the Santa Barbara County wine country won a lot of acclaim, but it also makes a solid case for a drive out to some of the grassier parts of southern California. I’m not even a wine guy, but I can definitely see the appeal of getting wine-drunk in the sunshine.
Something Wild (1986)
Movies like Nomadland find a great deal of beauty in the wide-open landscapes of the midwest and west — but the beauty to be found in a journey through the urban east can be a bit more complicated. With an eye toward the screwball comedies of the past (there are hints of It Happened One Night here, for sure), Jeff Daniels’ character is pulled into an increasingly absurd road trip from New York City to Virginia by the uninhibited, possibly unhinged, Lulu (Melanie Griffith). Director Jonathan Demme uses a brilliantly bold colour scheme and some great music to highlight the unexpected joy of their various east coast stopovers. And, like many of the best American travel movies, it winds up being all about leaving your baggage behind you.