Aging is rough, and going down gracefully is not easy. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, digs into this idea with Payne’s typical world weary humanism. He introduces us to another of his male protagonists whose lives are defined by what they don’t have, and the mistakes they make in their attempt to attain it. Here, our man of the hour is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an octogenarian of receding mental acuity who believes the marketing letter calling him to claim a million dollar reward is real. Woody is an alcoholic, a war veteran, and many other things we discover as he and his dutiful son, David, go on a journey to Lincoln, Nebraska, to pick up his prize.
Besides the beautiful black and white cinematography, which really brings to life the deadness and weariness of America’s heartland in these lean times, the relationship between David and Woody defines this movie. We are often told that we are more like our parents than we want to admit, and this movie embraces and explores the claim. Woody is a glimpse into David’s future, and David is often caught in reflection, both physical and emotional. David is often reminded by his firecracker mother (June Squibb), and his weary brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), how much like his father he actually is. Payne even goes so far as to have the two men dress similarly. Throughout the story, David is called to question his similarity to Woody, which leads him to try to find the humanity in a father who never seemed to be there, even when he was.
Obviously, David is the child of an alcoholic. He is unable to commit to his long time girlfriend, and she has left him. He continually apologizes for his father’s erratic behavior, and seeks the old man’s approval, even when doing so is either rebuffed or ignored. And he struggles with his own drinking problem. Forte’s performance is quite nuanced; as the movie builds, he paints a sad portrait of a man entering middle age who wants to believe life can be lived fully, but is unwilling to accept anyone’s word for it. The million dollar letter in Woody’s shirt pocket is as much a symbol of Woody’s longing for a fulfilled life as it is a symbol of David’s despair and lost hope.
And that is the difficulty of growing old. We battle with disillusionment. We long for better tomorrows. We hope our children’s lives will be made better by our own choices, while knowing we are doomed to make consistent bad choices we will inevitably regret. Nebraska’s strength is in the way it shows this battle.
I love June Squibb. I described her as a firecracker, and no better word can be found for her performance. When she is on screen, the black and white explodes with the color of her character. There’s a scene with her in a cemetery that just kills.
I didn't mention Bruce Dern's performance earlier, mostly because every critic has been singing his praises since the movie was first screened at Cannes in 2013. It is a great performance, perhaps the greatest of his career, and he dominates the film, even when he isn't on screen. I just figured there wasn't much else to say. He spends much of the movie's running time silent, but his silence speaks loudly.
Beside the father-son dynamic that drew me in, this movie is a pretty effective metaphor for the death of America. Woody almost seems symbolic himself of a dying society – a man haunted by his past and putting his hopes in something false for his future. He reminded me of the delusional Don Quixote, but without the romanticism.
I know my review focuses on the drama of the film, but this is a really funny movie. It’s ironic that the least funny characters are Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, two guys whose reputations have been built on comedy. Both dial down their funnyman personas and play the straight men, which goes a long way to making the film’s humor crackle.
The town of Hawthorn is one of the saddest places I’ve ever seen in a movie. It feels like a desolate wasteland. You really understand why Woody is an alcoholic. When his pre-marriage sweetheart, who runs the town paper, tells David that there’s not a lot to do in Hawthorn besides drink, it is a sobering thought.