Nebraska

Film Review by Stefan Kussy

Nebraska is a state in the USA and in Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska it’s also a state of mind. 

Old man Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) state of mind is questioned by his wife and family when he repeatedly and determinedly endeavours to walk from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize that everyone else knows is an advertising scam to get Woody to subscribe to magazines. 

Woody is a man of few words, which many mistake for dementia. It, however, camouflages a man who keeps his emotions and feelings buried deep within him.

His son David (Will Forte) entertains Woody’s dream and drives him to Nebraska.

Nebraska is a road trip, a journey of discovery for an old man who journeys to his past to make a statement about his life’s purpose, for a son and father to discover how they relate, for a family that appears to complain about each other's character to rediscover deep unspoken and restrained emotions.  

The strongest individual appears to be Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb).  She takes no nonsense. 

Nebraska is also a journey through small town American. There are a few direct comments about the effect of the suppressed economy on the job and business prospects for the citizens of Middle America but mostly it is the composition of the countryside shot in black and white--no, the film is not in colour so if you don't watch films that don't have colour, along with subtitled films, just skip this movie—that strikes the viewer. At times you think you’re at an exhibition of stunning black and white photographs. 

A roots and folk styled soundtrack meanders its sway through the film’s imagery. 

Woody’s determination is fuelled by the letter in his pocket that states he is a winner.  As his son says, "He believes what people tell him". The well intentioned but sad reply is, "That's a shame". 

Along the way, a stopover in Hamilton to visit family and friends becomes a revelation. It seems like a town that has lost hope. Many shots depict a town devoid of inhabitants and a lost prosperity, although the town's taverns appear to be thriving. Drinking is identified clearly as one social ill in these towns because men teach their young sons how to drink and it becomes what they do. They don't see drinking as a problem. 

We laugh initially as the camera frames a family sitting and watching TV with the men holding cans of beer in the middle of the day until we realise that is how they fill their time and define their lives. 

Although Dern is seen as a sad old man, it is the juxtaposition of the old people in the film, who have lived their lives and now are content to recount events with one and two word statements about cars they owned and people they grew up with, and the young people in towns like Hamilton that have nothing to look forward to and few future prospects. 

This is the truly dark heart of the movie. Woody's determination is remarkable in comparison to those who are on the lookout for a handout when they discover he has become a millionaire. 

Nebraska is like a film version of Grant Woods’ (a flip of Woody Grant’s name) painting American Gothic that features a farmer with a pitchfork and his wife standing against the background of an American farmhouse. 

Like the painting, Nebraska at first appears to be a parody of small town American cities and people but ends up being, if not a celebration, a reassurance that the people who live in small town America are decent people with solid values as shown in a funny sequence at the Westendorf’s farm.  

Nebraska is slow and ostensibly about old age, which may seem to appeal to a limited audience.  However, Nebraskahas a huge heart, full of characters who exhibit strengths and weaknesses and learn to survive the economic and personal hardships that have blocked their journey. 

 

Nebraska, rated M.