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September 19, 2016

Nebraska

by Franz Patrick


Nebraska (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a letter from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing which claims that he has won a million dollars. Since he is not allowed to drive and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), refuses to take him, every day Woody attempts to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. But he is not a winner. One of his sons, David (Will Forte), explains to him that the letter is a scam. The aging man remains unconvinced. So, in order to put an end to his father’s dangerous disappearance acts, David elects to drive Woody to Nebraska.

In its very essence, “Nebraska,” written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne, is a story of letting go: Woody must relinquish the fact that the piece of paper he so desperately cherishes is a disappointing dead end and David, in a way, must deal with the reality that his father will soon no longer be around. At one point, a woman asks the son if his father has Alzheimer’s. David says that the old man gets a little confused sometimes. We know better. Especially with Woody’s history of alcoholism.

I admired the director’s decision to showcase the picture in black and white. It is the correct route to tell this story. On one level, it highlights the austereness of forgotten America: farming communities, very small towns, folks who stare into the television all day as if watching an exciting alternate universe. And yet, on another level, it allows small emotions and possible thoughts to stand out more ferociously.

Given that the relationship between David and Woody is largely defined by small stings—a dismissive comment one moment, an expression of disappointment the next—it matters that faces are lit up—front and center—and the background is almost fading away, almost far away than it ought to be. In other words, though the core deals with real issues like the disconnection among family members, the environment embraces a dream-like quality which creates an interesting contrast. Unlike many pictures, the feeling behind the images on screen is not flat.

It bothers to keep a little bit of mystery. With films that touch upon family dynamics and generational gaps, it is easier to relay all of the information in order for the audience to be able to understand or appreciate everything that is going on at once. Here, it holds back a little. Of particular interest to me is a woman named Pegy Nagy (Angela McEwan), Woody’s former girlfriend. Though she and David interact in only two scenes at most, it is a meaningful connection because we are asked to participate. As Pegy tells David about the romantic history between she and Woody, we try to imagine how they must have been like as a couple. Images I constructed by my mind were worlds away between what Woody and Kate share. Still, I wondered if Pegy and Woody would have worked out in the long run.

“Nebraska” is an effective drama because it does not rely on words or obvious explanations to paint a complete portrait. Sometimes love is an unspoken thing—which can be difficult if it is not expressed at all—and that reflects the relationship between father and son. And yet it is surprisingly funny, too. The director has a tendency for embracing ironic flourishing without being mired in them.

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