Alexander Payne’s warm, resonating “Nebraska” courageously asks such questions not as a precursor to a story of psychological awareness, but as a way to study characters that sidestep movie conventions for the sake of, basically, mirroring the everyday lives of normal middle-class people caught up in conflicts that challenge and then unite them. Watching the film, my grins were matched only by my swelling emotions; because it comes entirely from a place of profound clarity, we eventually find that we are not really just watching a movie, but actually experiencing these important moments alongside those disturbed by them. There is a rare potential buried in character studies to look beyond mere faces and dialogue in order to discover the inner workings of human behavior, and here is a movie that finds such possibilities by paying attention, letting details flow over us intuitively and then wrapping them in a subtext that is poetic and universal. This may very well be one of the most powerful movies ever made about the misfortune of growing old and fragile.
How does such an endeavor weave such undeniable magic? The movie begins, first, by closely studying its faces – some confused, some scrupulous, others cynical and arrogant, and even a few all-knowing. The primary focus of these is Woody’s (Bruce Dern), the patriarch of a middle class family unit that has, we sense, been weathered by all the familiar domestic conflicts in the movies. But he is also a man who has reached the age where his body and mind are fading in and out; diagnosed with dementia, he often stares past the concerned eyes of others as if in silent protest against the notion of being seen as a convalescent. For him, travelling to Nebraska in order to collect his supposed million dollar prize may very well be a rebellion against that perception. That desire is challenged, alas, by the endeavors of two sons whose own character flaws indicate questionable upbringings: David, the primary observer of this story, is wimpy and eccentric – the kind of guy who was probably bullied as a kid on school playgrounds, we suspect – while Ross (Bob Odenkirk) appears only out of demand, and usually just long enough to criticize others for failing as caretakers. Rounding out the core family unit is their mother Kate (June Squibb), a cranky old sort whose honesty is matched only by her cynicism, and when her confused husband is brought back home after the daily routine of wandering off in search of his false fortune, there is no embrace or thankfulness; instead, she berates him so excessively that the movie suggests lifelong marital discord entirely through the tone of her delivery.
The screenplay by Bob Nelson is pitch perfect with details. It creates realities without over-speaking on the observations, and through dialogue exchanges there are moments when prisons of information are thrown open like releases of euphoric insight. Early on the narrative insinuates that the four leads are estranged from one another out of relentlessly dramatic histories, but unity does emerge when David, seeing how important the task really is for his father, offers to drive him to Nebraska to collect his desired winnings. Despite knowingly letting the old man seek his fortune in vain, David does find reason to preserve his father’s momentary illusion – partially for the sake of occupying his frail mind, but also for the rare opportunity to peer into the past lives of his parents and learn something important. To emphasize this, the middle stretch of the movie involves interactions that take place in Woody’s Nebraskan home town (a destination along the journey), in which old connections are reignited and an eccentric gathering of relatives and acquaintances is assembled.
Ancient conflicts arrive at the surface quite rapidly. Many of these people are happy to see their former friend for the first time in years, but there are grudges held, and outspoken acquaintances feel they are entitled to some sort of financial compensation for supposedly helping Woody during his destructive years as an alcoholic. What exactly transpired? Through words and observations there emerges a portrait of questionable choices. And yet there is no overbearing emphasis in these details; for “Nebraska,” reveals happen on whims dictated by strained interactions, and decisions are made entirely for the sake of progressing the findings of a curious son rather than the dynamics of a forced plot. The best of these moments (and surely the funniest) involves the Kate character taking her son on a trip through the local cemetery, and introducing him to the headstones of a life full of former acquaintances and enemies.
Consider for a moment that these plot situations are not so much narrative checkpoints as they are experiences that run parallel to our own. Imagine yourself as David, the frustrated and concerned son with scarcely a life of merit, who dislikes the way things were but finds understanding in the past, and even sympathy in those that were present for it. Think of your own mother or father as Woody, a living vessel that slowly transitions from awareness to uncertainty as a consequence of age. There is not a single moment in the movie that is forced or out of step with reality; it passes along from one series of events to the next like it were riding the unwritten routine of life, and the performances frame the material with perceptive richness. June Squibb is flawless in her portrayal of the maddening Kate, and her succinct conviction is a remarkable contrast to the overzealous indulgence often seen of other actors who play similarly outspoken characters. Dern’s performance, meanwhile, is relentlessly sublime; to play a man whose rough exterior is nothing more than a mask to hide a life of regrets and broken dreams is daunting even for a veteran, but to infuse that quality in a performance that uses illness as the underlying current reminds us that here is, indeed, one of the unmatchable talents of his generation.
There are brilliant stylistic decisions that add resonance to the movie’s value system. Payne’s thoughtful direction keeps the movie’s pace on target for two solid and amusing hours, only stopping long enough to catch sight of important details before moving on to more of the same without interruption to the flow. The decision to shoot the picture in black and white is, ironically, wise more than effective; though the look of the film is wonderful, the absence of color comes across as a metaphor that Payne seems to be using to emphasize Woody’s faltering mental clarity. As an added benefit, none of the camera shots are more ambitious than they really need to be, and the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael (a frequent collaborator on Payne’s movies) is leisurely and yet brilliantly focused. There are no less than a dozen still shots in “Nebraska” that are striking beyond measure, and they reaffirm that there is, indeed, a forgotten power in the use of black and white in the film industry.
All of this is woven into a story that is as straightforward and pure as they come, though eventually it does come around to asking one probing question: what exactly does poor old Woody hope to do with that sweepstakes money he is so determined to collect? His response is a very simple one: “I want a new truck.” Later, when grilled further about the true nature of his chase, there is a powerful admission that breaks down a decisive wall between he and his son, and the result is an honest moment for a man that, despite his mistakes, wanted nothing more than to provide security for the family he loved so dearly. The tragedy of age, some would say, is that the victories of the past are lost on those they directly affected; children can be forgetful, even ungrateful, and our elders frequently leave this world without ever being revered for their contributions to a series of young lives. This is a man whose life has been hard and unforgiving, but at the last critical moment of acknowledgment his endeavors are finally seen in the eyes of his enlightened child, who finds the courage – and the selflessness – to give old Woody one last moment of pure joy before dementia consumes him. Sometimes, in that paralyzing fog of old age, all one needs is a friend before a relative.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US); 2013; Rated R for some language; Running Time: 115 Minutes
Bruce Dern: Woody Grant
Will Forte: David Grant
June Squibb: Kate Grant
Bob Odenkirk: Ross Grant
Stacy Keach: Ed Pedgram
Produced by Albert Berger, Doug Mankoff, George Parra, Neil Tabatznik, Julie M. Thompson and Ron Yerxa; Directed by Alexander Payne; Written by Bob Nelson