Smug curmudgeonly older men are huddled around the TV set on plaid-upholstered armchairs that you know smell vaguely of musk. Beer is in hand and ranch-dip-and-accoutrements are within reach. The game is on and when they’re not falling asleep, the talk turns around the only thing these men seem to care about: cars. The camera, shooting from the television screen itself, perfectly frames this very American portrait. Nebraska takes the subject of everyday life seriously—you really get the sense they sit there like this every day.
Alexander Payne’s newest film paints a particular picture of the American backwoods, but it’s not one that we don’t already have. I’m sure some people think plaid-toting Nebraskans really have nothing better to do than nourish their beer bellies and watch football. But to take Payne’s portrayal as a caricature mocking Nebraskans—many played by locals living in the area—is to read no further than the film’s often-comical surface. There’s a wistful melancholy to their boredom that the black-and-white cinematography brings out. Without slipping into melodrama, Nebraska explores Life where it can seem most fit to do so. Nothing else is going on; Life is all there is.
The film centers on a road trip that David (Will Forte) takes with his cantankerous, senile father, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), who is convinced he’s won a million dollars after receiving a bogus Mega Sweepstakes letter from a magazine. His sharp-tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) implores David and her other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), to do something about their father who often wanders out of the house to make the 850-mile trek from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska (where he will claim his prize) on foot. David, a “home theater and entertainment” salesclerk going through a break-up who himself has “nothing better to do,” decides to indulge his father’s fantasy. What starts off as a ruse to “get Woody to shut up” ends up as an emotional journey into the past with reflections on love, family, and personal satisfaction.
Much of the story takes place in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown in rural Nebraska, where an impromptu reunion brings the family together when they hear Woody will be passing through with David. Nebraska becomes synonymous with many places at once: a picturesque idyll whose flatlands make for magnificent landscape shots, a snapshot of smalltown America post economic crisis with closed storefronts and an eerily empty Main Street, and a final destination in a personal quest for satisfaction. At heart is the quintessentially American dream to ‘have a million dollars,’ a desire that the film locates in Woody’s disappointed past.
To think that ‘nothing happens’ in Nebraska (both the state and the film) is the mistake we make in thinking that the bustling activity of a city fills the ‘void’ of slow, rural life, that the fast-paced life is inherently more colorful than a dreary existence in the middle of nowhere. With patience the film quietly suggests that the stuff of life isn’t elsewhere, it’s always in and around you in your past and in your relationships. But we love to believe in elsewheres, in the land built on dreams.
This paradox makes the characters human and their story worth following. There’s a beautiful scene where the Grants go to the now-dilapidated family homestead where Woody grew up. He feels his childhood in the empty spaces, remembering in a particularly poignant moment his two-year-old brother’s death. You wonder how much Woody actually remembers, and how much he decides to keep to himself. You wonder about his conviction that he’s won the million dollars, and whether it’s his dementia or a terrifying optimism to forget reality, like the alcohol he “doesn’t drink.”
But is reality so bad? Beneath his rough marriage filled with constant bickering (Squibb does a wonderful job playing the part of the unhappy, sardonic caretaker wife) may not be love (“You must have loved each other when you got married,” David asks Woody, to which he responds, “Never came up.”) but something close. And what about David’s gesture to make his father happy even though Woody “never gave a shit about” him or his brother? In fact, you might ask yourself, what’s the difference between love and care? Is it love if one is obliged? Is it possible to love begrudgingly?
That the film doesn’t offer an easy answer to these questions is a compliment to Payne’s direction and to Bob Nelson’s script. That these questions arise from a two-hour chronicle of a road trip in the farmlands whose protagonists are mostly septuagenarians is a testament to their attention to the beauty of the seemingly banal (in the theater the film came after back-to-back trailers of action and war films filled with guns and screaming). I’m reminded of Payne’s segment in Paris, je t’aime (2006) where an American tourist from Denver spends a week in the city and experiences, while doing nothing more than sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich, an incredible, immense joie de vivre. The banal isn’t boring, it’s universal.
“He just believes what people tell him,” Kate says of Woody, who we learn has a good heart despite his rough edges and is often taken advantage of. But aren’t we all gullible? We believe money can secure happiness and satisfaction, that marriage and long-term relationships are a crystallization of romantic love, that there is always more to have, to see, to do. We cling to these beliefs lest we descend into meaninglessness, but behind stubborn certainties often lie mysteries beyond our ability to make sense of them.
The opening scene of the film shows Woody hobbling alongside a snow-covered highway, unfettered by the cars driving past with mind and body fixed on his prize. A police officer stops to ask him, “Where you going?” Woody reluctantly raises his arm and points forward. “Where you coming from?” He points over his shoulder in a dismissive gesture, without looking back. Not that we’re all grumpy, deluded, alcoholic old men, but what more can we say about our own lives than that we are always somewhere between coming and going?
Ryohei Ozaki is a senior in the French and Italian Department.