We come to the second of three bleak movies about which you will have to decide whether or not they are worth your time. We discussed the English film “Nil By Mouth” written and directed by Gary Oldman, last week. Today we will move to the heartland of the U.S. “Nebraska” takes place largely in . . . well, yes, “You’re more than a match for me, I can see that,” as Monty Python would say. It starts out in Billings, Montana, and moves through Wyoming, into South Dakota, and finally into Nebraska, where most of the action takes place.
Once again I offer fair warning. There will be vulgar things spoken, including the f-word. (Not nearly as often as in “Nil By Mouth.”) So count the cost. Also be warned that the following discussion will reveal the plot completely.
“Nebraska” is a black and white 2013 film written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne. It was nominated for six Oscars, although it won none. Bruce Dern won the Cannes Film Festival award as best actor for 2013. The film was a modest financial success: made on a $13.5 million budget, with $27.7 million coming in at the box office.
The plot is simple. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an aging man who receives something in the mail that leads him to believe he has won a million dollars. He wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska (from his home in Billings, Montana) to pick up his winnings. He is an alcoholic, and thus has lost his driver’s license. He starts out walking. The police pick him up before he gets far, and he is soon back at his (very modest) home with his frustrated wife Kate (June Squibb).
The couple has two grown sons. The one who figures most prominently in the story is David (Will Forte). He and the rest of the family fully understand that the “million dollars” prize is simply a way to cause people to subscribe to magazines. But Woody doesn’t believe them.
David is not doing all that well himself. He has a job selling stereo sets (or something of the sort), and it is not necessarily going well. We see him interact with a couple who are potential buyers, but he fails to close the sale. Financially he is simply getting by, we sense. Worse, his personal life is in a shambles. His live-in girlfriend Noel has just left him.
We see them together briefly. The filmmakers have made a wise decision in the casting and portrayal of Noel. She is chubby, and not gorgeous. She seems like a real person, not a Hollywood actress. David misses her and wants her back. But of course not enough to commit to a marriage.
To spend some time with his father (and also to get him to shut up about the winning prize) David decides to drive his father to Lincoln, Nebraska. David tells his employer that he is sick, rather than straightforwardly ask for time off.
They leave Billings and begin the long journey to Nebraska, dipping down into Wyoming, into southern South Dakota (where they stop to see Mt. Rushmore). Woody’s drinking leads to a fall and a brief stay in a hospital. In Nebraska they stop to visit family in Hawthorne (a fictional name; it is real life Plainview).
In Hawthorne we meet lots more of the Grant clan. Woody has many brothers, most still living but some deceased. The living ones are almost as silent as the dead ones. In one scene the brothers sit watching a pro football game. There seem to be about seven living brothers. They have almost nothing to say, except a few words about cars. The contrast between the articulate and fast-talking announcer and the silent brothers watching the game, is very real, and darkly humorous.
The two sons of one brother are the fully grown Cole and Bart. They are not doing well. They don’t work; they live at home. David tries to make cousinly friendly conversation, but Cole and Bart are mean mockers, only partially redeemed by the saving grace of stupidity. One of them sometimes has to pick up trash as part of his community service for his conviction for sexual assault. They provide comic relief. (Of which there is a lot in the movie; it has been called a comedy-drama, and correctly so.) The mother puts as good a face on the situation as she can. She tries to paint them as doing voluntary work; she scolds them to control their vulgar tongues. Here is another dysfunctional family. The older generation may be quiet and hard working and polite, but Cole and Bart give us zero hope for the future of that branch of the Grant clan.
The news of Woody’s million dollar winnings gets around, thanks to Woody talking about the prize. (David advised him to say nothing, knowing that there are no “winnings.”) Here we get a realistically mixed response. Some people want to take advantage of Woody, cashing in on his success. Many others are genuinely happy for him, and hope he will enjoy his new-found cash.
Kate and Ross eventually join the family gathering in Hawthorne. Kate visits the cemetery with Woody and David. Her crudeness about her late sister-in-law shocks David. Woody silently endures it.
David gets revelations about his father and mother from other people. Some revelations are good. Others are very bad. The vicious Ed Pegram (played very believably by Stacy Keach) reveals that before David’s conception Woody had been engaged in an extra-marital affair with a “half-breed” Indian, and had wanted to divorce Kate. All this is news to David.
Kate, frequently angry with Woody, comes to his defense when one branch of the family claims Woody owes them some of his winnings. Here we get one of the few uses of the f-word, as she sets the record straight about who owes whom.
In one extended part of the movie, Woody, Kate, Ross, and David visit the dilapidated home place of the Grant clan. They see the room where Woody’s brother died at age two. Kate snidely says that the house looks about in the same condition Woody’s mother kept it years ago. The place is falling apart. Life brings hard changes.
Later the four are still touring the countryside. Ross and David, to get revenge on Ed Pegram, steal back the old air compressor Pegram has stolen from Woody years ago. But they are at the wrong house. They hurriedly turn around and return the air compressor, just as the innocent owners are returning to their home.
Cole and Bart the Mensa rejects mask themselves and rough up Woody and David outside a bar, stealing the letter announcing the million dollar winnings. Alas, even they are bright enough to see that there are no winnings. David readily understands who has stolen the letter. When he returns to their home, the brothers are offended that there is not going to be a million dollars. They have thrown the letter away.
David and Woody return to the scene of the crime, trying to find the missing letter. No success. David suggests they take a break. They enter a bar, where they find Ed Pegram reading the letter to the hilarity of the other denizens of the bar. Now they all know what a fool Woody has been. Woody quietly takes the letter back, and folds it up and leaves. David starts to follow him, but reconsiders. He turns back and slugs Ed Pegram on the head. (If you are unable to rejoice that Ed Pegram gets a fist to the face, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”) No bar fight follows. Shaking his wounded fist, David rejoins his father.
His father has a dizzy spell, and they make another trip to a hospital. They are going to return to Billings. Woody agrees.
Except that in his inner soul he has not agreed. David wakes from his chair in the hospital room to find that his father is missing. Once again Woody is walking toward Lincoln.
David tracks him down and picks him up. They head for Lincoln. They arrive at the address on the letter. The young woman waiting on them types the numbers on the letter into the computer. There is no off the charts miracle. The numbers don’t match the million dollar prize. Woody has not won a million dollars. They start to leave, but the woman offers them either a seat cushion or a cap. Woody chooses a cap. It says “Prize Winner.”
As Woody goes outside, the (very polite, friendly) woman says that they occasionally have other people who come for their possible prize. Does Woody suffer from Alzheimer’s? David says that it’s just that “He believes things that people tell him.”
David starts to drive them home, but warns his father that he wants to make a couple stops on the way. At the first stop, he goes inside while his father waits in the car. When he gets back, he tells his father that the truck in front of them is Woody’s. It is not exactly new, being five years old, but it is a very good used truck. David has put his father’s name on the title. He has traded in his car for the truck. (Possibly adding a good deal more payment for the truck, via credit card, although we are not told this.)
They make a second stop. This time David emerges with a new air compressor, which is loaded in back of the truck.
They resume their journey. In Hawthorne, David stops the truck and tells his father he can drive. The road is clear of traffic. Woody drives through Hawthorne. He tells David to get down. David obligingly hunkers down on the floorboard, and Woody makes his way through the town where they had mocked him. Only a few people see him, but one of them is (providentially, we may say) the vicious Ed Pegram with his wounded head.
Outside of Hawthorne they stop, change places, and David is once again driving. They resume the journey back to Billings. The picture fades to black.
This is a movie about a United States that is wounded and dying. The ravishing beauty of the countryside (even in black and white) is contrasted with the confusion of the lives of many of the people. At one time the protagonists drive by a simple but handsome Christian church building. But the Christianity of the heartland is largely a “whiff from an empty bottle,” as one famous phrase has it, just as is the Christianity of the rest of the U.S.
The family of Woody and Kate may have had some sort of Christian background. (At the cemetery there are Lutheran and Catholic sections.) But the children have not really been raised to believe anything about Christianity. Ross says to David of his father, early on in the movie, “He never gave a s— about you and me.” Woody’s was not a mean desertion of his children; he just did what he wanted and if that was self-indulgent, well, so be it. David knew at age six or eight that his father was an alcoholic.
The family has been profoundly wounded. But among the father, mother, and two sons, we are glad to see family solidarity of a reasonable sort. Ross is correct that his father had not cared enough about the boys, but Ross later rises to the defense of his family just as did Kate and David in times of crisis.
There is sadness here. The future looks dim. Woody has his truck (which he quite properly will not be permitted to drive on the roads of Billings). He has a new air compressor. David has shown himself to be generous of nature, and we have come to care for him deeply. But will he understand that if you are going to lie down with a woman you need to marry her? We have no sign that he has begin to think his life through from a biblical perspective. Except that he has indeed honored his father. His father is a profoundly flawed man, but David has honored him. That is a good start.
The performances, even of very small parts, are consistently excellent, for which the director surely must deserve some credit. He had a thoughtful script with which to work. The movie-makers probably have no clue that a dying out of biblical Christianity is the root cause of the problems of these dysfunctional families. But they are not making fun of heartland Americans. They have given us a bleak movie, but one with a few gleams of hope and humor. At the worst, surely they are making us think.
DVDs of “Nebraska” can be obtained for a very reasonable price. Today I saw used copies available for as low as $5.33 (sales tax extra) at Amazon.
If you can stand the vulgarities–every person must suit himself–“Nebraska” is a thought-provoking and moving film. It is the kind of film which two or three like-minded people could watch and discuss and enjoy together. But it is certainly not a film for everyone. I’m glad I have seen it three times, and if I keep on living there will probably come a time when I will see it again.