Set in the wide expanses of middle America, Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska still manages to feel small and claustrophobic a lot of the time. While in some ways the film is charming and gentle, it’s largely acidic and sour. The motivations at the heart of the film are love, but the weathered and worn souls that inhabit Payne’s windswept, black-and-white landscape, conjuring memories of Peter Bogdanovich‘s The Last Picture Show, are either too tired or too afraid to admit they even care any longer. The weight of this burden is not only seen on the characters’ faces but felt by the audience throughout.
Meet Woody (Bruce Dern), the grumbling, aged soul at the center of Payne’s story. He received a “winning” sweepstakes mailer, the kind most of us know to throw away, and now believes he’s the winner of one million dollars. Tucking his winning ticket into his left breast pocket, he’s made up his mind he’s going to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska and collect his winnings in person. As he tells his son David (Will Forte), he’s not “trusting the mail with one million dollars!”
The film begins with Woody meandering down the freeway as the gentle, guitar-driven score from Mark Orton eases us into the picture. A police officer brings him back home and after several more episodes David decides he’ll just take him to Nebraska himself rather than risk the chance he’ll venture out on his own once more.
David’s mother, Kate (June Squibb), is against the idea and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion in ways that cut straight through any bullshit. Woody’s drinking has clearly been a problem for his entire life and hints of his time in the Korean War also add to the mystery of his back-story, giving us just enough to paint a general picture of his life. But it isn’t all sadness. Some people talk of Woody’s kind heart and his inability to say “no” to anyone and for as many times as we hear his wife call him an “idiot”, there’s no mistaking her love for him late in the film. I just wish this love was a little more apparent, and didn’t have to be realized through nonstop acidic hate.
The negativity, selfishness and hate hit me pretty hard. For one, because the characters feel so real and two, because Woody and David’s journey felt so predestined it was the only thing left to focus on.
For example, David and Woody’s road trip finds them stopping over in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska to visit family. Here we meet two of David’s cousins, a couple of fat slobs who spend most of their time laying about on the couch, watching television with their nearly catatonic father (Rance Howard). David sits down and the two ask him how long it took to get there from Billings. He explains they were sidetracked for nearly a day and it ended up taking two days as a result. They laugh and poke fun, and all David does is sit there, absorbing their laughter and ridicule rather than correct their stupidity and misunderstanding.
Along these same lines, nearly everyone in Hawthorne comes across as either sad, selfish, stupid, pathetic or some combination thereof. In another example, hoping to impress old acquaintances, Woody tells them of the million dollars he’s headed to collect and an old friend of his, Ed Pegram played by Stacy Keach, sees the opportunity to take advantage of a man he knows to have a heart for helping others. While David stands up for his father, it never feels like enough, not while it’s happening and not in the end. Especially considering the only redemption to be had means showing these people up, a tactic more likely to enrage people further rather than teach a lesson.
However, to be fair, the film isn’t entirely filled with negativity. Some of the members of Hawthorne, where much of the film takes place, are genuinely happy for Woody’s good fortune. A small role played by Angela McEwan as one of Woody’s early loves is heart-breaking in both her kindness and sweet heart when we first meet her and the sad history of a love lost worn on her face in the film’s final moments.
I mention all of this realizing I’ve always had a problem with ignorance in films. I hate watching people take advantage of others when there is little that can be done and especially when the damage has already set in. That said, I can’t honestly say the film judges all of its characters fairly.
Through all of these characters we’re meant to come to an understanding of Woody, but it’s done through the negativity of others with very little care or compassion. The people of Hawthorne are presented as simple, if not downright dumb, and even as David’s mother comes into town they stop off at a cemetery so she can “pay her respects” and yet she spends the entire time gossiping about every last dead body in the ground. We may learn Woody had a younger brother that died of scarlet fever and a sister that also passed away, but when Kate insists on telling us his sister was a whore, having sex with people since she was 15 and up until she died at 19 how exactly does that benefit the film or our understanding of Woody who can only saunter back to the car rather than listen to any more of her vitriol? It may offer insight into a sad past, but what loving wife would bring it up so callously?
Understandably, all of these people play a role in the life Payne has chosen to focus on, but all the negativity it takes to get to the true heart of his character makes it a rather oppressive watch. Nebraska is a very well made film with a few minor laughs, but the overall vibe I received while watching makes it a hard film to entirely enjoy.