Howard Adelman

The distance from BillingsMontana travelling east to LincolnNebraska is about 900 miles on a mostly dead flat, straight highway that is longer and more lonesome than I have ever seen in a movie. Billings, where Woody Grant (played magnificently by Bruce Dern) lives, is the largest city in Montana, about the size of Barrie, Ontario with just over 100,000 people. Like Barrie, it is a booming town that avoided the economic bust that generally ravished so many towns and cities in the USA in the last six years. LincolnNebraska is about three times the size of Billings with a reputation of one of the happiest and healthiest cities in the USA. So when the old, addled and grizzly curmudgeon, Woody, sets out with his son, David (Will Forte) travelling east rather than west on a quixotic quest, you would think they would be going from one booming and bustling place to an even larger and more jumping one even if it is not the Big Apple. 

But this is an Alexander Payne road and buddy movie – this time with a father and son. Everything looks bleak, frozen in time, decrepit and rotting into history. Shot in black and white, even the famous vast blue skies of the west are never to be seen as gray and white clouds block any sunlight throughout the movie. Instead of sprightly western reels, all we ever hear in the background is the plucking of plaintive guitar music. If reality is the American dream of this geographical area, human despair against a backdrop of crumbling real estate tells a very different story – the American dream turned upside down and inside out. We know from the very opening of the film that the promised lottery prize of a million dollars is a scam to sell magazine subscriptions. So we are presented with a portrait of a drab landscape rather than the usual uplifting one, especially as you approach Nebraska.

The script matches the landscape. If the usual movie script is about 100 pages, I wager this one was no more than 30 pages – for the film is permeated by silences and one syllable replies, usually only after a second try when Woody wakens from his befuddled state. Though sometimes sassy when Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), is on the screen and lights it up with her foul and earthy mouth, the speeches lack any wit, wisdom or sophistication. The people barely manage to talk with or by one another. When they aren’t scheming, they are stolid, complacent and boring. “Didn’t you drive an Impala.” “Never owned one.” “I was sure it was a Chevy.” “It was a Buick.” These are not the exact words in the script, but they catch the flavour.

In one scene when the father and son are only two hours from Lincoln and back in the town of Hawthorne, North Dakota, where Woody is from, he and his son get together with Woody’s brothers and their wives – there are many of them. They sit with eyes glued to a football game on TV barely exchanging a word with and never a glance at one another. It is one of the best tableaus in the history of film and will become iconic. Human relations are even bleaker than the visual portrait of the landscape. The sculptures of the American presidents on Mount Rushmore are NOT monumental in their aspirations but an unfinished business of leftovers. of a job incomplete and abandoned. So went the American dream. For after all, everyone knew it was a scam all along.

In the part of the country famed for its solid and stolid hardworking and honest souls, we are presented with a portrait of indolent leftovers eager to make a quick buck by beggary or buggery or bullying, whatever it takes. I could tell you the plot, but there is barely a plot. The intrigues are farces and lack any suspense. They are just the adaptations of more blundering fools. In contrast to Downton Abbey, with its sophistication and wit, with the finest costuming money could buy, with scheming and plotting over an inheritance, the characters in Nebraska are clothed in old and worn plaid shirts and jeans and engage in scheming without a plot, and conniving without any crackle. Most of the men, even Woody’s two sons, at least in the first half of the film, seem almost as muddled as Woody.

Yet the alienated relationship between the father and the son heals and is transformed. The film becomes sweet without being in any way cloy or sentimental. And nostalgia is turned on its head in the aspiration for a half ton pick up and a new pressure painter. The motto seems to read in headlines – let the past die. Rather than an exercise in sentimentality and nostalgia, Nebraska is an exercise that parodies nostalgia, particularly nostalgia for the American dream.  

Rather than a movie about loyalty, it is a movie without loyalties that becomes bittersweet when a real contact develops between the son and the father.  A forlorn portrait of the futility of life turns into delight at very small things and gestures. So although no one really goes anywhere or does anything, the odyssey still delivers a pot of gold, Though the landscape is full of losers, a glimpse of the wonder of small things emerges from the petty cruelty man metes out on his fellows. The sense of the futility of all life that permeates the movie and creates a forlorn portrait that history never changes,  unlike Downton Abbey, turns into testimony to the son’s faith. The story travels in a  circle as the father and son head back from Lincoln, Nebraska westward back to Billings, Montana.

This is a western without any action, a film of fragility and seeming futility rather than strength, a movie about determination to find the pot at the end of the rainbow when everyone knows there is no pot and everyone can see that there is not only no rainbow but not a drop of colour on the whole horizon.

In the aftermath of four Canadian soldiers committing suicide in one week, in the back stories of a military that wants to shuffle these casualties into hidden and uncared for recesses, we watch in the film and see what happened to an aged veteran of the Korean War. Woody clearly seemed to have suffered from his own post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, initially we fully sympathize with his wife’s desire to ship him off to a nursing home. This tale of a pathetic and cantankerous old sot turns into a story in which Sancho Pancho gets to know his ornery father as a caring and generous human without any of the venality that seems to permeate so many of the characters. 

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