Nebraska (2013) Dir. Alexander Payne

This Oscar-nominated film was a solid comic-drama with plenty of genuine laughs and authentic tragedy. As the film closed I was left with two thoughts: this movie was really funny and really sad.

It is a story about fathers and sons and our relationships to our old hometowns. Woody (Bruce Dern) believes he has won a million dollars after receiving a magazine sweepstakes promotion in the mail and is determined to reach Lincoln, Nebraska in order to retrieve his imaginary winnings. After many attempts to get their by foot, since he can no longer drive after losing his license, his son, all-around-nice-guy David (Will Forte) agrees to take him, much to the annoyance of the rest of his family, Woody’s sharp-tongued wife (June Squib) and an older brother (Bob Odenkirk). Along the way, they stop at his hometown where Woody meets up with old acquaintances, friends, and his extended family. The town soon learns about Woody’s imaginary fortune and gets caught up in this dream, with many old acquaintances and even family members demanding repayment for supposed loans that they had to give Woody to keep his family afloat due to poor finances and alcoholism.

The entire film is shot in black-and-white. This style choice emphasizes the simple story-telling, while also deepening the small-town Mid-Western atmosphere. It makes the quaint town feel even more old-fashioned. It also plays a symbolic role; the characters and their situations seem black-and-white at first, but tiny details reveal they’re more shades of gray.

Woody seems like a cantankerous old-man on the verge of senility, but the film implies that this laconic, often confused old man has a life full of regrets. As they visit his old town the film raises that frustrating specter that haunts all human beings at some point in their lives: What if! We meet an old fling who seems kinder and gentler than his current wife; what if he had married her instead? We learn of a dead younger brother, who used to sleep in the same room as Woody, giving the sense that they must’ve been close; what if he hadn’t died? We visit his old business he had with a partner; what if he hadn’t sold his half of the business and been more successful? Indeed, even his two sons were unintended accidents, not conscious decisions. There is a sense throughout the film that Woody could have had a very different life; perhaps a better, more satisfying one. Indeed, as he eventually tells his son; he only wants the money so he can buy his own truck and leave the rest as an inheritance to his sons.  His biggest regret of all is that he has nothing to leave his sons when he dies.

Woody’s wife reveals that much of Woody’s financial misfortunes stem from his being a nice guy who can’t say no to anybody, a trait visible in David. She warns David, in the beginning of the film, that he will grow up to be just like his father. At first, we get the impression that this is just a random insult because she is angry that David is indulging his father’s whim, we believe she is talking about his stubbornness, but as the film progresses and we learn more about Woody’s past, we see that David is a reflection of what his father must’ve been like in his youth, a way too nice guy whose defining trait is both endearing and fatal.  The beginning of the film in which David’s girlfriend leaves him also implies David is struggling with his life choices. We get the impression that his life choices haven’t brought him much happiness either.

The strength of the film, besides its comical moments, is the way it constantly forces us to reevaluate the characters. Woody blames his wife for his alcoholism, telling us that if you lived with such a woman wouldn’t you become an alcoholic? However, he later reveals he began drinking at the age of eight, long before he ever knew his wife. Likewise, for all her fast-paced insults and irritation at her husband, which gives the impression that she doesn’t particularly like him, a scene towards the end of the film shows her tenderly kissing her husband’s brow after an accident sends him to the hospital, implying that she does genuinely care and love him, and really is just looking out for what she believes is in his best interests.

Once the town learns the truth of his supposed newfound riches, all his supposed friends and extended family who really just wanted a hand-out, mock him. In the end, Woody gets the truck he always wanted and drives it through his hometown, much to the shock and surprise of his old acquaintances who can only just stare, wondering if he did in fact win a million dollars after all. It is an illusion that he has finally had a good stroke of luck, thrust in the face of his old hometown. If Woody’s consideration for others helped his misfortunes along and is meant to be a warning that being too selfless leads to people taking advantage of you, then this scene of a son’s consideration for his father’s dream counterbalances this idea of selflessness always being bad.

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