Bruce Dern as Woody in Nebraska: look into those eyes
As we get older we tend to live more in the past. Yet at the same time our memory begins to fade. So things can get a little confused. In Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne (who gave us the funny and moving Sideways), Woody Grant is an elderly and increasingly confused old alcoholic who is convinced that has won a million dollars and is determined to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska (having lost his driving licence through some past infraction) to claim his prize in person.
Nebraska: on the road
Payne has shot the film in black and white, filling the screen with wide-screen images of big sky and open country, the highways and tired urban landscape of the decaying towns that squat on the plains of the American Midwest. In the opening sequence Woody (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) trudges up the highway, heading out of his hometown of Billings, Montana, intent on walking the 750 miles to collect his winnings. His son David (Will Forte) collects him from the local police station. After Woody sets out again on his pilgrimage despite his family’s insistence that he is being conned by a marketing scam, his harassed son decides to humour him by driving him to Lincoln.
They haven’t gone far when Woody gets drunk, gashes his head and has to be taken to hospital. The upshot is a detour to the town where Woody was born and grew to manhood. The road movie morphs into a grotesque family reunion, with the screenplay treading a fine line between affection and caricature in its depiction of Woody’s relatives and old friends.
Nebraska: venal and grotesque cousins
Here are people, battered by recession and America’s fading economic power, who cling to each other in gloomy bars or slump for hours before TV screens. In one scene, Payne films Woody’s relatives gathered around the TV to watch a football game. We see them from the vantage point of the television set: old men in check shirts, all facing in the same direction, all silent and still, utterly impassive, their faces blank and inexpressive.
Nebraska: the thrill of watching the match on TV
Payne (who hails from Nebraska himself) portrays these characters as venal and grotesque. But along with the caustic humour that at times makes you wonder whether Payne is mocking his characters there is an elegiac tone that places them within the context of the fading of the American Dream. These broken people, Payne seems to suggest, once were the backbone of America – the farmers and industrial workers who powered the American century.
It’s not all grotesquery, though; as Richard Brody observed in his review for the New Yorker:
The loveliest, most poignant scene in the film takes place in the sleepy office of the town’s newspaper, where David goes in quest of information and chats with the elderly editor (Angela McEwan), who, it turns out, has history with the family. It’s the scene that quietly wrenches the movie apart and makes the distant, unspoken past vibrate with a revived passionate power.
Nebraska: watching TV again
That sense of a people living in hope that the dream they were promised will one day materialise is crystallised in this exchange between Woody’s son and the receptionist at the office of the marketing company in Lincoln. She has just confirmed that Woody has won nothing, and offered the consolation prize of a free baseball cap on which are inscribed the words ‘Prize Winner’:
– Has he got Alzheimer’s?
– No. He just believes what people tell him.
– Too bad
Payne ends the film on an uplifting note that doesn’t sweeten or weaken the stringency of its earlier observations of character and context. Richard Brody puts it well in his New Yorker review:
Payne wraps things up with a moment of cheerful satisfaction that packs bitter ironies. David and Woody don’t return home better equipped to face their troubles; Woody is still in decline, and David’s job and solitude await him in Billings. The knowledge that David brings back and the experiences that he’s had in Hawthorne won’t be of much help to him. Rather, the knowledge is life itself; the movie is the story of a life deepening and filling out, as if in real time—but that deepening life doesn’t improve in any practical sense. Nothing changes; and yet, at the end of the movie, nothing seems the same.
The film is never sentimental, nor unduly melancholic, and Payne downplays the story’s larger symbolic implications by keeping his focus on the behaviour of the characters, giving us a nuanced portrait of small-town life; an intimate tale, rooted in family and community, that resonates with echoes of forces that lurk just over the horizon.
Nebraska: Woody returns to the old homestead
Footnote: films in 2013
Without doubt, Nebraska stacks up as one of the best films of 2013 – though, at least as far as feature films go, this has not been an especially memorable year. I have seen excellent feature films – but you can count them on the fingers of one hand: Museum Hours, Terence Malik’s To the Wonder, and the Chilean election drama No! I have also seen, but not written about here, Captain Phillips, the thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks that dramatises the true story of Phillips, taken hostage after the container ship he was captaining was seized by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. That led us to watching a slew of his other films at home – some of them that I hadn’t seen before: the Bourne trilogy (the last two parts energetically directed by Greengrass), the white-knuckle United 93 and Green Zone, originally announced as being based on the award-winning book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, but turning out to be a thriller having more in common with the Bourne films (not least the leading actor, Matt Damon) than the book. We also saw Gravity (who didn’t?), Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant 3D epic starring Sandra Bullock as the beleaguered astronaut floating in space, and – as a family Christmas outing – the second part of Peter Jackson’s overblown Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. It was, at least, an improvement over last year’s execrable The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
But the genre that consistently came up with the best films was the documentary. There was a time when documentary films would not have been destined for cinema release, but these days they are as finely-edited and presented in high definition as feature films. Seen this year were: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the Stones documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, Springsteen and I, Ken Loach’s The Sprit of ’45, and McCullin, the stunning documentary about the war photographer Don McCullin.