A Nebraskan Weighs in on Nebraska
Hi. I’m from Nebraska. And in theaters now is a wildly praised, Oscar-nomination-shoo-in, Cannes-Best-Actor-award-winning film called… Nebraska.
Naturally, I had some thoughts…
“When you listen to Bruce [Springsteen]’s music, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem… about losers.” —Jon Stewart
For a certain breed of Nebraskan (the type who, typically, got out of Nebraska), the films of Alexander Payne—particularly the ones set in Nebraska (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt)—will make you feel the same way Stewart does about Springsteen. Nebraska is no different.
That Springsteen reference isn’t an accident. His 1982 LP (also named Nebraska) is a lo-fi cinematic stunner, a black-and-white predecessor to Payne’s 2013 movie. A.O. Scott, in his New York Times review, nails the connection between them: “There is something in the movie that brings to mind the haunting last line of the album’s title track: ‘Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.’ … Hard times are part of the picture, and so are hard people.”
To put it another way: Nebraska repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
And a tremendous farce it is.
Roughly, Nebraska tells the tale of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a boozy old bastard who becomes convinced* he’s won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. (“I didn’t even know they still do that,” his son says.) The problem: he lives in Billings, MT, and can only collect his winnings in Lincoln, in his home state of Nebraska. The solution: walking to Lincoln, which… lands him in the clink. The better solution: his son David (Will Forte)—single, with a nothing career—reluctantly offers to drive Woody to Lincoln instead. Much soul-searching ensues.
A quick aside about Bruce Dern:
The character of Woody is almost impossible to play. He’s a sleepy, semiconscious riddle of a man, with feelings too buried or nonexistent for an actor to demonstrate. (With his stock answers of “don’t know” and “doesn’t matter,” Woody seems to embody Gene Hackman’s great line from Unforgiven: “Hell, I even thought I was dead till I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska.”)
Which is why Dern’s hazy performance is so impressive—instead of fading into the background, his Woody is a fascinating puzzle, aided by a shock of white hair that should get consideration for the Best Supporting Actor prize.
On their road trip, David encounters remnants of his father’s past—an old girlfriend, a newspaper article detailing Woody’s service in Korea, a whole family that barely communicates beyond questions about drive times and football. They also encounter a lot of petty jealousies and thinly concealed power plays from some of the same relatives, all hidden behind polite utterances and friendly smiles.
Suddenly, Nebraska looks an awful lot like Nebraska.
In David Denby’s review of the movie—quoted with enthusiasm by some asshole behind me after the movie—he misses the point entirely. “These people have no pretensions, no power,” he says of the Nebraskans in the film. “What is there to make fun of? … [I]f this is [Payne’s] idea of affection I wouldn’t want to see him working on characters that he disdains.”
Denby seems to have mistaken Payne’s exaggeration of the Nebraskan character for satire. (And it’s pretty rich when the reviewer for the, ahem, New Yorker, feels compelled to defend Nebraskans from a Nebraskan.) It’s not satire. This is how people in Nebraska are. When one of David’s cousins refers to a Kia as a “Jap-car” (“It’s actually Korean,” David reminds him)… let’s just say I could easily see some people I know saying the same thing.
But it’s not just the offensive stuff Payne nails. It’s also the mundane stuff, as when that same cousin asks how long it took David to drive from Billings to the fictional town of Hawthorne. It’s a slow-burning (and inconsequential) interrogation; I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Clothes Line Saga,” when news of the vice president going insane is treated with the same shrug as the day’s chores. As Greil Marcus writes of that song, Americans can “turn Judgment Day into weather. (Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.)”
And that, essentially, is what the movie is about. Woody is obviously suffering an existential crisis, and only his son recognizes it. He’s at the end of a life half-lived and misspent; he tells his son he stuck with his wife because he “just would have wound up with someone else to give me shit all the time.” His deluded belief that he’s won a million dollars is just a way to justify taking a final chance to settle scores and to show his rivals that he’s better than them, his old friends he still loves them, his family that deep down he really cares. (For me, the most moving scene was when he enters his parents’ old bedroom in his broken-down childhood home; his dad used to whip him if he was caught in the room, but “I guess no one can whip me now.”)
In the wrong hands, it’s corny stuff. In Payne’s, it’s perfect. The emotions and the dialect are as flat as the landscape, beautifully captured in black and white. But between the pauses is a yearning for the same connection any of us wants. What Nebraska is is a regionally specific tale of redemption—it’s just that Payne’s Nebraska is as dry as Springsteen’s Jersey is frantic.
And in my experience, that’s spot-on. We Nebraskans need hope just like anyone else. We just go about it in stupid ways sometimes.
*Or does he? The film wisely never confirms if Woody really, truly believes it.
- — Paul L. Underwood