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Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne
For the first time in his filmmaking career, Alexander Payne directed a script he did not write. The result was a film that got a lot of praise from critics. It wasn’t a box office smash, but it did better than expected due to awards season word of mouth. After the diversions of Sideways and The Descendants, Payne had returned to his Midwestern roots, exploring the humor and daily dramas of life in Nebraska. A pair of producers contacted Payne while working on About Schmidt with the Nebraska script. Payne already knew Sideways was in the pipeline and wisely realized he would be seen as “the guy who makes road trip movies” but thought the Nebraska script was great. It got put on the back-burner, and after The Descendants, Payne saw this as the time to make Nebraska.
David Grant (Will Forte) is the youngest of a very dysfunctional family. His dad Woody (Bruce Dern), has become convinced that a sweepstakes mailer he was sent entitles him to a million-dollar prize. Woody starts being sighted by neighbors walking miles away from his home, determined to get to Lincoln and claim his prize. David’s mom, Kate (June Squibb), has become fed up with Woody after decades of his erratic behavior and wants David to deal with it. David tries to get help from Ross (Bob Odenkirk), a local news anchor, but Ross is busy with his career. Eventually, David agrees to take Woody to Lincoln simply so he can show his father that this is all a delusion. On the way, they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. Family is visited, old friends are reunited, and very quickly, the town hears & believes Woody’s million-dollar story. David begins to learn more about his father, understanding the parts of the man that have confused him since he was a child.
I remember an argument between my dad and one of my uncles from when I was a child. I can’t recall how this conversation started, but a piece of it is embedded in my memory. My uncle argued that their father had been too violent in their corporal punishment as children. My father wouldn’t have it and claimed everything their father had done was justified. My father, unlike my uncle, had attached his identity to some of the worst reactionary politics around. My uncle is apolitical/goes with the crowd, so he likely came from a place of good faith. My father had to support the physical abuse he went through as a child to justify the physical & emotional abuse he was doing to his family. And this is sort of how I view the messages Nebraska is uplifting. This is apologia for old abusive white men written by their sons who are in some heavy denial.
Aesthetically, I love Nebraska. I think Payne certainly knows how to elevate landscapes that are otherwise ignored. The choice to shoot in black and white evokes a sense of nostalgia, just around the edges of the picture. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael has been working with Payne since Sideways, and you can see how the work went from one visual language into another. Papamichael textures things more richly than in the previous films. Despite my dislike of this period in Payne’s career, I would never argue that the movies don’t look markedly better. I think the black and white style helps promote the sense of a culture that’s been stripped of color, of dreams. Every small town is a crumbling collection of homes and businesses along an ever-increasingly quiet Main Street.
My disagreement with the film comes from the overarching theme of it all. During David’s journey, he learns what was going on with his dad when Woody was a young man and a young father. From David’s perspective, Woody has been a cold & angry drunk. He learns that his father often gave away money and property to people in great need. Part of this stems from Woody’s brutal self-loathing, something the old man would never admit. Woody has given and given and now, in his twilight years, feels he is owed something. Woody’s anger leaks out into how the film portrays the people around him, and it ends up feeling like one of Payne’s nastiest pieces of work to date.
Woody’s brother and his family are portrayed as the most disgusting, oafish morons simply so that Woody can appear in a better light. Ed Peagram (Stacy Keach), a former business partner of Woody’s, is a strawman, acting as a bigger bully than Woody to soften the domestic abuse that was going on in David’s childhood. “Well, you see,” the movie says, “Woody isn’t that bad. He was just misunderstood for all those years when he was drinking himself into a stupor, giving away his family’s sustenance, and abusing them. So don’t blame him.” I find the redemptive themes of the picture worked better when they were employed in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, a very similar concept that managed to heal its main character without justifying abuse and had likable supporting characters.
The story is incredibly shallow, and Payne doesn’t seem to know where to go with it. It stalls out in Hawthorne for the longest time and stretches credulity at specific points. It’s contrived to get Kate and Ross there. I also disliked how David constantly tells the townsfolk who swept up Woody’s million-dollar claim that it’s not real, only for David to be seen as “in on the scam” when the truth comes out. This could work in a more overtly satirical movie, but Nebraska always hovers in this sitcom/slice-of-life comedy territory. Comparing Payne’s work to Yasujirō Ozu’s is valid, but where Ozu finds empathy for his side characters, Payne only seems to evoke scorn for them.
People who praise the film will talk about the power of the ending. I admit it is emotionally affecting on a very cursory level, but that’s only if you’ve bought into the domestic abuse apologia. David helps his dad “win a prize” by spending his own money and then gives him a moment of glory as they head back home, passing through Hawthorne. My heartstrings were not plucked; I just saw David as losing himself in the same delusion my father had. David believes that if he can put Woody on a pedestal, essentially building a myth around his dad, imagining him to be the silent hero, that helps David hide all that trauma and not think about it anymore. Ross was the far more reasonable son, in my opinion. He constantly reminds David of the hell their father put their mother through and suggests Woody be placed in a retirement home so their mother can at least have a respite from the chaos. The movie wants us to see Ross as cruel for such a suggestion, but he’s entirely correct.