December 8, 2013 3 Comments


Nebraska is a perfect film.

“Arghh!” you are probably saying:  such claims MUST be reserved for masterpiece creations that are universally acclaimed/revered and have already withstood the scrutiny of decades of film criticism.  David Denby of the New Yorker didn’t even LIKE this film (although I would suggest that he didn’t really GET this film).  Even so, why throw around a claim of perfection at all?

Here’s why:  Every blue moon or so, a director finds a way to access his/her abilities and create a film that manages to  transcend the anticipated spectator experience.  This requires an emotional ability to write or inhabit a screenplay, to cast and then evoke visceral performances from its actors, to maintain a creative vision while shooting the film and then to edit with clarity, confidence, flexibility and passion for the story.

Director Alexander Payne (Election,  Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants) has offered his audience an opportunity for immersion in a world that could only be created in film.

“Nebraska’ is the story of an elderly man (Bruce Dern) existing on the edges of personal dementia in a small town (Billings, Montana) which also hovers on the edge of being forgotten.  Woody (the elderly man) has received a proclamation in the mail claiming that he is the winner of $ 1,000,000 which must be claimed at a magazine subscription office (hint hint) in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Woody, a taciturn. sullen man who relates best to the alcohol that he constantly denies that he drinks, is determined to travel from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln and claim his prize.  Estranged from his sarcastic wife and two disappointing, grown sons, Woody is obsessed with his $1,000,000, seemingly oblivious to the scam.  The remainder of the movie centers on David (Woody’s youngest son) and Woody, who initiate a multi-state journey to Lincoln.  This is where many films would have lost their way in the “road trip” metaphor, opted for geriatric parody (think “Bad Grampa”) or sentimentalized the painful realities of aging.  Payne, who is a native of Nebraska, avoids such detours with a trust in his characters’ ability and our (the audience’s) willingness to complete the journey with him.

The film is shot in black and white, which immediately harkens us to a time “past”.  Payne, intimately familiar with the Western landscape, uses the nuances of black and white filmmaking to visually underscore the  drab existence endured by those in Billings, while visually suggesting (think John Ford) the still presence of something much more.  The music is wistful and reminds us of the quiet sadness that permeates the lives of Woody and all who surround him.

The  “comedic” concreteness of the small town conversation also hints at the pain and debilitating losses that maintains the need for emotional distance.  Payne’s first hand experience with Nebraskan neurosis provides a subtle authenticity that those unfamiliar (or uncomfortable) with such profound forlornless may choose to ignore or deny.  Anyone with any experience with the daily coping required in small town America will FEEL the pain, understand the cruelty as well as the longing for some chance of  hope.  Woody’s quest seems less bizarre as the film unfolds.

But back to the claim for perfection.

There are themes in this film that would be heavy handed if attempted with dialogue.  Payne accomplishes much with his visuals.  A poignant closeup look (I can’t divulge which, but can hint that it has to do with the father-son connection that is the heart of the film) “speaks” to us without a single word. Visuals are  profound in this film from the very opening scene, providing  hints for us of Woody’s troubled, inner state before we know anything about him.

The film’s ending is sweet and well deserved.  ( The performances are outstanding, by the way).  There are no big red bows and no deathbed scenes to wring tears out of the audience.  It’s the kind of film that deserves to be savored.


Jolyn Wagner

Must See Movie of the Week
3 Comments to “Nebraska”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    In 1999 David Lynch directed a film titled, “The Straight Story.” In it an old man named Alvin drives a lawn mower 240 miles to see his brother, Lyle, who has had a stroke. Do you remember that film? Comparisons?

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” begins with these lines:

    Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity
    To seize everything you ever wanted, one moment
    Would you capture it?
    Or just let it slip?

    Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old man who has received in the mail what he thinks is notification of his having won a million dollars. He doesn’t trust the U.S. mail and so wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the money in person. This is his one shot to seize everything he ever wanted (though it turns out that what he wants costs way less than a million), and he sets out to capture it, first on foot and then driven by his son, David, from their home in Billings, Montana.

    Jarrod White of Film Static says that the film “is a drama in its content, a comedy in its delivery.” Much of the comedy is provided by Kate (June Squibb), Woody’s wife, and the drama involves the unfolding of Woody’s character. We learn that not only is he an alcoholic, but he has been one for a very long time. People say he could never say “no,” and though Kate calls him names and says she wants to put him in a home, she defends him against one of his relatives who is seeking repayment for what she claims are past loans. Kate reminds her how often Woody worked on their cars for free. He also lent out his compressor which he has never got back. He had an affair with a Native American woman before David was born despite Kate’s being the hottest woman in Hawthorne, Woody’s hometown. Woody had vices and virtues.

    In his old age Woody is cranky, falls asleep a lot, is melancholy, and bordering on dementia. He is going to die soon and knows it. He stops by his brother’s home in Hawthorne on the way to Lincoln. There we meet his dull brother and his two carbon-copy sons. They want to make fun of David for how long it took him to get to Hawthorne from Billings and brag about how much faster they could have made the trip. They also want part of Woody’s million and are not above robbing him of his “ticket” to get it. There is a saying that still water runs deep, but the corn around Hawthorne grows in foul and shallow soil. Kate, a city girl, is the brightest light around. Her sons seem much brighter than the rest of the family and the locals. Woody is on the verge of dementia.

    I found nothing in the small town life of Hawthorne to emulate or admire. The shots of hay bales and cows grazing in the open land represent the emptiness of life in this rural town. Despite this, I gradually grew to empathize with Woody, a person who led a humdrum life with not much to show for it but who just wants a new truck and something to leave his sons before he dies. That’s not too much to ask and enough to get us on his side.

  3. Brian Murphy says:

    Haven’t seen the film yet, so all I can say in response to these two thoughtful reviews is Bravo!

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