Director: Alexander Payne, 2013 (R)
An old man walks slowly down a main street in Billings Montana. When pulled over by a friendly police officer, the man tells him he is walking to Lincoln, Nebraska. Why? Because he has won a million dollars and needs to get there to claim his winnings.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) can no longer drive and has resolved to get to Nebraska by foot of he has to. Having received a scam letter from a magazine publisher, his family tells him he is wasting his time but Woody believes the letter. As his son says in one scene, “he just believes what people tell him.” But his lifelong alcoholism has contributed to his apparent sporadic dementia. Despite periods of lucidity, he drifts out of it for other periods and his conversational reticence make it difficult to know which state he is in.
When it is clear he won’t listen or give up, despite the harangues from his acerbic tongued wife Kate (June Squib) and his bitter elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), his younger son David (Will Forte), a home theater salesman, agrees to drive him there. Nebraska, thus, becomes a father-son road-trip with an extended stop for a family reunion of sorts in Hawthorne, Nebraska, where Woody grew up
From its opening scene of empty Billings streets to the dying businesses in Hawthorne, it is clear that one theme of the film is aging (and dying). The movie is shot in a beautiful but bleak black and white that adds an older world feel that underscores this theme. The small town of Hawthorne itself looks like a ghost town with barely any young residents. Such dying, though a part of life, seems a sad destination.
While in Hawthorne, Woody lets it slip that he has won $1 million. Suddenly the old friends pop out of the woodwork, all with old debts for Woody to repay. Vultures all, they are driven by greed, a desire to get a guilt-induced handout from an old man.
Greed is a sin denounced by Jesus, one that the Pharisees held close to their heart (Mt. 23:25). Jesus placed it in a list of vices that included adultery, lust and malice (Mk. 7:22). Moreover, Paul considered the love of money to be a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).
Though Woody’s extended family and friends greedily latched onto him for some of his “winnings,” Woody had different intentions for the money. One character asked him what he would do with the money, and what the first thing he would spend it on. His answer, and later explanation, tells a different tale. It forces us to wonder, what would you do with a million dollars? What would be the first thing you buy? Would you use this windfall for self or others? What motivation would drive how you use it?
When Woody and David meet the extended family in Hawthorne, two cousins immediately mock them. The two road-trippers become the butt of their jokes. Indeed, these cousins are funny in their own red-necked stupidity. But when Ross and Kate arrive, and the extended family is together, the family dysfunction emerges. Kate is a sharp truth-teller. This comes out most clearly in a scene where the immediate family visits a cemetery. Kate gives a commentary on those buried: “There’s Woody’s little sister, Rose. She was only nineteen when she was killed in a car wreck near Wausa. What a whore! I liked Rose, but my God, she was a slut. I’m just telling you the truth!”
In some ways, Nebraska resembles August: Osage County. The mothers in both films are caustic, using their sharp tongues as truth-tellers. Both have extended families enjoying a dinner. And both show these extended families dysfunctioning. But while Osage County ends with the family self-destructing, Nebraska at least shows the immediate family surviving, even laughing together in a later scene. Both films underscore the point that truth must be spoken in the context of love (Eph. 4:15), else it becomes sharp and divisive.
Despite all this, Nebraska is a comic drama. While Osage County’s comedy was dark, almost black, the humor here is a little lighter. Payne paints a bittersweet tale filled with quiet poignant scenes. The movie itself is slow with a soft score that resonates with the cinematography. Like his earlier films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants) Payne takes his time and shows us the humorous ups and downs of ordinary people living ordinary lives.
Ultimately, though, Nebraska is about more than just aging, dignity and greed. It is about family, and in particular the father-son relationship. David wants to get to know his cantankerous father before it is too late. The road trip to Hawthorne does not reveal much, but the family, friends and foes found there offer up secrets his father never shared. Further, Woody’s family background highlights how his character has emerged and how his upbringing affected his parenting.
Many might find this film too slow and the characters too unpleasant. But don’t be put off by these aspects. The film has a heart and a message. Money is not everything. Family relationships mean so much more. Even as our parents are slowly aging and degenerating, we should treat them with the dignity they deserve. There is more to their lives than we will ever know. We can and must honor them while they are still with us. They will appreciate it, and God will bless us for it. After all, as Paul pointed out, that commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” was “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2).
Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs