After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne takes to the road yet again, this time in his home state, for Nebraska (2013), a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Payne’s prairie-based old-age odyssey begins, appropriately, on a busy stretch of highway.
A small, solitary figure shuffles along the side of the snow-fringed road, stooped and scowling in the wind. His determined trudging is interrupted by a police officer, who asks where he’s coming from and where he’s headed. Wordlessly, the old man points back and then forward. This is a man who, like his surroundings, seems to have outlived his usefulness; he has that self-involvement the way someone does when he’s staring death in the face, bobbing and weaving along that highway to avoid his inevitable mortality. His journey is a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to a life. He seems confused, but there’s a heartbreaking purity, a blankness to him, as well as a hunger and a ferocity, that feel terrifyingly real. Without saying a word, he has hit upon a deep and eloquent truth: like the character, that’s all we really know in life—that we came from back there and we’re going forward on the road, regardless of where it might lead, because we have no idea what the end destination is or where we’ll end up anyway.
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In surprising ways, his odyssey resembles those of Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Walter Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries (2004). The protagonists of these works are all younger than Payne’s character; they have had different life experiences; they travel different lands. But, through each of their journeys, they seek the same meaningfulness, defining their own identities in relation to others and to their environments, looking for a place they belong, and trying to establish a human connection.
None of them seem to need a connection more than Payne’s Woody Grant. A taciturn grouch with a lifelong commitment to drinking and an oft-stated desire to be left alone, Woody is as clueless as he is cantankerous. Not only has he convinced himself he’s won a million dollars after receiving a sweepstakes letter the kind which most people customarily throw in the trash, but he insists on collecting his winning personally by making the 800-odd-mile trek from his home in Billings, Montana, to the prize office in Lincoln Nebraska—by himself, on foot, if needed.
His son David (Will Forte) is a single and struggling stereo equipment salesman who trudges along in work and in life. He and his father aren’t terribly close because Woody isn’t terribly close to anyone; family is merely the expected phenomenon that just sort of formed around him at some point. Conceding that “the guy just needs something to live for,” the beleaguered David takes off work and sets off in his Subaru, a deputy fool on a fool’s errand, a weary Sancho to the old man’s Quixote. The son undertakes the drive as much out of pity as to escape his own broken down situation and maybe even more so for the personal time it will give them. Payne hews to the classic buddy road-picture, with the mismatched Woody and David setting forth on a journey of mishaps, chance encounters, hilarious complications and, of course, some long-overdue father-son bonding. But thanks to screenwriter Bob Nelson’s lean, tone-perfect script and Payne’s tender execution, Nebraska never feels patronizing or facile.
Like the young characters of The Motorcycle Diaries, Woody and David begin their journey partly because they are in need of a change, making an effort to leave behind a “wretched” and uninspiring life. A sequence in the car shows them entering South Dakota and passing a “Run With the Pack” sign on the highway. Then a motorcycle gang passes them—that fundamental image of outlaw freedom and non-conformity to the mainstream. And in a way, Woody and his son are like that. They don’t run with the pack; they do their own thing (which no one else in the film agrees with), but they have their own (two-person) pack, their own family and community like the bikers. The image immediately calls to mind Salles’ movie, in which Che and Alberto similarly go against the norm, traveling up the ragged spine of the American continent on their broken-down bike, “The Mighty One.”
“We look like outlaws,” Guevara wrote in his diary, “commanding attention wherever we go,” and the same can be said about Payne’s father-son duo. The two pairs of travelers arrive at destinations markedly different than what they had expected. For Che and Alberto, the trip means a chance to “encounter new lands, hear new anthems, eat new fruits,” all capped off by their end destination, where they will be treated to “bellies full of wine and two tropical beauties.” In reality, their journey will have nothing to do with these material, typical tourist attractions, just as Woody’s journey will ultimately never lead to a million dollars.
In You Shall Know Our Velocity, the characters embark on their quest for the exact opposite reason than Woody. Whereas the film’s protagonist is out to collect his winnings, Will and Hand journey in order to get rid of unwanted money. The novel’s narrator feels that he has not earned and does not deserve the money he has been given and travels the world in order to give it, bit by bit, to whomever he finds most deserving. This sacrifice of funds, is explained, is for the benefit of both parties, as a sacrament with the purpose of restoring a faith in humanity. Woody, too, we find out in the second half, plans to give his money away after he has collected; besides a slice of dignity—and maybe a new truck that would alleviate the rage at the disempowerment and un-American humiliation of having to walk everywhere—his quixotic quest for the prize is mostly so he has something to leave to his children when he dies.
The sweepstakes letter he carries everywhere strangely resembles the treasure map Will and Hand make in Pärnu, Estonia. Like the letter, the map bears signs of inauthenticity—to put it lightly. Will says he wanted it to look weathered, mysterious, and ancient; the characters draw it in ball-point pen on graph paper, then burn the edges. But the purpose of the map in the novel and Woody’s letter in Nebraska is the same. For neither work does the end result limit itself to financial winnings or material possession. It is the sense of hope implied in the search for treasure that Eggers and Payne explore: “This would have sent my childhood in an entirely different direction,” Will writes. “… it would be so expanding, would open their minds to such possibilities—this act alone could keep a child—and his or her friends, and theirs—from the grey low-slung sky of adolescence; whenever they would feel that they’d seen everything, or, conversely, that the extraordinary was not possible—and how funny that those two things, diametrically opposed, are always both found in the jaded brain—whenever that happened they’d remember the treasure, the Moroccans on the run, the fact that they’d found the money here, in this ragged forest by the tracks on the edge of their tiny town…” (286).
The money, for Woody, is also a form of protection, from the grey low-slung sky of old-age instead of adolescence. As both David and Woody’s long-suffering wife Kate (a scene-stealing June Squibb), a foul-mouthed voice of reason, observe, it’s not like there’s anything Woody could really do with a million dollars at this point. He says he wants a new pickup truck, even though his driver’s license has been revoked. His obsession with the money is at least partly a desperate wish to assert himself and give meaning to his life by expanding his sphere of possibilities—not that he had many possibilities to begin with, at least not in the small hamlet of Hawthorne, Nebraska. Although the tiny town is fictitious, the sense of place that Payne creates is unshakeable.
Shot in bleak black-and-white by the director’s frequent cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska is neither ostentatious nor overly gritty, just forthright and elegantly composed, at times calling to mind the still photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The handsome monochromatic cinematography gives a wintry plainness to the landscape and that roadside Americana that Payne loves to point out in long traveling shots of slate-colored skies hanging over pastureland and lonely blacktop, last-stop diners standing on the edge of nowhere, the windswept vistas of a vital agro-industrial heartland outsourced into irrelevance.
Although the international landscapes of Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, Che and Alberto in The Motorcycle Diaries, Vernon in Vernon God Little, and Will and Hand in You Shall Know Our Velocity are decidedly more glamorous or exotic, in Eggers’ novel the view from the car window in Estonia is hardly different than the sights Woody and David encounter. The specificity of one destination is universalized, making it clear that after a certain point any locales merge into the same dreary landscape: “The ground was white and the tree line was low,” Will writes. “Estonia could look like Nebraska and Nebraska like Kansas. Kansas like Morocco. Morocco like Alres. On and on. Growing up I thought all countries looked, were required to look, completely different…. But every country now seemed to offer a little of every other country, and every given landscape… existed somewhere in the US” (255).
Payne’s black-and-white is emotionally apt for a film that centers on a man and his son revisiting the past. The widescreen cinematography—which calls to mind Westerns of the fifties and sixties—is more unexpected. The director has explained that he wants his art to have verisimilitude but also to transform experience instead of being an exact duplicate; he wants his audience to see the Midwest as close to reality as they can while still seeing it in a new way. There are Western-worthy, epic shots in Nebraska of drifting, sun-gilded clouds above the Black Hills, but its strongest images are quotidian: an abandoned farm in a stubbly field, the bald back yard of a peeling clapboard house. There’s a forlorn shot of a reader board that Payne and his crew found in Plainview: “SEE US FO YOUR HOME LOAN.”
Like Jesse’s television show idea in Before Sunrise, to capture life as it’s lived, twenty-four hours a day, Nebraska is made up of what Celine calls “all those mundane, boring things everybody has to do every day of their fucking life.” I, however, prefer Jesse’s description. “the poetry of everyday life,” because there is something truly lyrical in the simplicity and honesty of Payne’s depiction of character and place. And only someone with intimate knowledge of the small town’s singular cadences, social codes and confounding emotional stew of aggression and politesse could pull off something as masterful, meaningful and poetic as Nebraska. Some of the details the director dwells on recall passages from Vernon’s portrayal of Martirio, Texas, in Pierre’s novel, if only through their honesty and perceptiveness. The description of Crockett Park seems like only a slightly more decrepit version of Hawthorne, where people beat up on each other and clean their own carburetors. Closer to town, everything gets bottled up, “just bottled the fuck up till it fucken explodes, so you spend the whole time waiting to see who’s going to pop next. I guess a kind of smelly honesty is what you find at Crockett’s. A smelly honesty, and clean carburetors” (95).
As Nebraska’s father and son wind their way through Wyoming and South Dakota towards Woody’s home town, the movie blossoms into a study of provincial American absurdity. Payne, training his keen eye on a part of American culture that, in terms of the popular imagination, has been virtually hiding in plain sight, disposes of Red State clichés, condescending superiority, and trite sentimentalism, instead bringing rigorous, often goofily amusing insight to this portrayal of his home state. Payne regards Woody and the folks he meets with some affectionate teasing, but also with the no-nonsense clarity of a fellow Midwesterner. The interiors of the characters’ middle-class homes are cluttered with schlocky knick-knacks. Their clothes are utilitarian and unfashionable. They are complacent at best and scheming at worst. You could interpret all this as mockery, but also as a vivid perception of a region that shaped the filmmaker. It often feels as though Payne is trying to strip away the cliché that the region is populated exclusively by hardworking, decent hearted types. His Midwest is full of complicated people marked by flaws and failures, mistakes and regrets. The world he depicts is, not unlike that of Pierre’s Vernon God Little, a small-town America that is fading, aging and on the verge of giving up, blighted by envy, suspicion, and a general failure of good will.
Whereas the members of the community in Pierre’s novel are interested only in their image and one-upping each other, without noticing any of the larger forces and issues the title character sees with incredible clarity, the inhabitants of Hawthorne are blinded by the promise of wealth, if they could only mooch a bit off Woody; the smell of entirely imaginary money is enough to render them all simultaneously pathetic and evil. It doesn’t take long for the old man to become headline news, and, as soon word gets out that the returned Montana prodigal is a newly minted millionaire, the smiles in the town grow wider and more predatory. A few people seem genuinely happy for Woody, but generally old acquaintances and relatives alike regard him with an uneasy mix of pride, jealousy, and greed—portrayed in hilarious, madcap slapstick in a few scenes involving a pair of oversized, oafish cousins.
The film’s view of human condition in the way the populace’s heads are completely turned by the presence of celebrity almost exactly mirrors that of Vernon God Little, although the book delves much deeper into exploring the media’s role in the lives of its characters, the constant mention of movies and television shows demonstrating the pervasiveness and power of the media to create our expectations and dreams. In this environment, a guy like Lally, the main antagonist in the novel, is seductive and powerful even if he is just a TV repairman, because people believe he has the media behind him. “I have to learn how to turn slime into legitimate business,” Vernon thinks, “the way it’s my right to do in this free world. My obligation, almost, when you think about it. What I definitely learned… is that everything hinges on the words you use. Doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to wrap the thing in the right kind of words” (135). Lally knows how to frame things, package and position them and then sell them back to an unsuspecting audience of female admirers, not unlike the way Woody’s former partner in an auto-repair shop and the kind of pal who makes enemies redundant Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), Nebraska’s villain, tries to use Woody’s prize to his own advantage.
Woody himself doesn’t quite know what to make of his new-found fame, but the few moments in which he seems genuinely happy are the diner scene when he is cheered on by the town, and the film’s starkly beautiful final moments. It is in these two instances that Woody is getting noticed by the people of the small town, a need that has gone completely unfulfilled his entire life—most sadly so when his own wife talks about him as if he’s not there. “A learning grows in me like a tumor,” Vernon says in Pierre’s novel. “It’s about the way different needy people find the quickest route to get some attention in their miserable fucken lives. The fucken oozing nakedness, the despair of being such a vulnerable egg-sac of a critter, like, a so-called human being, just sickens me sometimes…. The Human Condition, Mom calls it. Watch out for that fucker” (128-29). But try as they might, the characters of Nebraska can never escape their “human condition”; the nakedness and despair hangs heavily over their lives, along with the daunting realization that their existence has amounted to nothing.
The emptiness of Hawthorne itself, the loneliness of its shabby streets and the feeling that there is nothing surrounding the weathered buildings, translates itself to the inhabitants. Just as the community of Martirio tries to conceal the meaninglessness of their lives and create some comfort with food and other superficialities, to fill their pies with more cream, “stuffing emptiness into [the void],” or make something as horribly funny as joy cakes after a mass shooting, Woody’s former neighbors need him to win that money. Even after David explains it’s all a big misunderstanding, they refuse to believe it because Woody’s illusive image as a millionaire fits their own narrative better than the truth. Kate, utterly uncensored in her running commentaries about long-ago sexual shenanigans and anything else that has to do with her past, arrives in town and instantly embarks on a colorful litany of complaints that sets the record straight. The first words we hear her say to Woody are: “You dumb cluck!” (The last, uttered with more tenderness, are “You big idiot”). A formidable force despite her diminutive size, Kate talks about the old days only in the most derogatory terms about her “useless” husband and just about everyone else. Her blunt honesty balances both Woody’s sad illusions and the smiling duplicity of almost every other character.
Payne gently infuses the film’s comic tone with strains of longing and regret, always careful to avoid the maudlin or cheaply sentimental. When the character reconnects with his family and friends, there is no tearful reunion. Instead, we get an abrupt image of several of Woody’s relatives gathered around a television to watch a football game. They are all old men in bland, buttoned-down shirts, all facing the same direction, barely grunting small talk at each other. This is a human still life of resignation, a tableau of eight white guys sitting around talking about cars, never diverting their eyes from the unseen television.
We’re treated to a number of conversations about how long it takes, or might hypothetically take, to drive from Point A to Point B (a topic of endless fascination to the American male) and about who used to drive what car and when. There’s a wonderful back-and-forth about a ’78 Impala – unless it was a ’79 Buick – that ran forever until it stopped running. Apart from being inimitably funny, the scene offers a group portrait of men who, whatever they may be feeling inside, are utterly undisposed to talk about it, representing one colossal failure to communicate that feels like a genetic male trait.
The one thing these men have in common is regret, a feeling Woody understands only too well. Like the man Celine used to work for in Before Sunrise, these quiet Hawthorne men might come to realize that they have given nothing of themselves to others. Like Woody in the opening sequence, the other characters have come to a point in their lives in which there’s certainly more to look at behind them than in front along their life’s road, and they understand that they are nearing the end of their days. The passage of time is merciless and unstoppable, as is the threat of death that looms over old age.
“The years shall run like rabbits,” Jesse quotes from D.H. Auden in Linklater’s movie, “All the clocks in the city/ Began to whir, and chime./ Oh, let not time deceive you/ You cannot conquer time./ In headaches and in worry/ Vaguely life leaks away./ And time will have its fancy/ Tomorrow or today.” The poem is only one example, but the characters of Before Sunrise contemplate the idea of time and death almost constantly, although they are both still very young. Jesse and Celine consider their night together “time travel”; the people they encounter speak of reincarnation, or of how human beings are merely stardust; the photo Jesse pretends to take in the morning with an imaginary camera is an attempt to freeze the moment, to stop time, but the trip to the cemetery makes it clear that only death can stop time, as it did for Elisabeth, the little girl who died at thirteen and has been that age ever since. But human figures are transitory, as “La voie ferre,” the image Celine points to on the exhibition poster makes clear. In life, as in the painting, the environments are stronger than the people because they are lasting, remaining almost unchanged throughout time, although a strong sense of a vanishing past holds sway over an illusory future in Nebraska.
Just as The Last Picture Show was a movie made in the 1970s about the end of ’50s-era innocence, Nebraska feels, despite its present-day setting, like a eulogy for a bygone America (and American cinema). The emptied-out look of Hawthorne makes it resemble the town in The Last Picture Show, but without the teenagers; there are only old people here, in the saloons and the streets, and other key settings — the cemetery, the newspaper office, the dilapidated farmhouse Woody grew up in and his father built — quietly contribute to the feel of time and opportunity having passed by. The closer the characters get to Lincoln, the more they appear to be receding into the past, culminating in one magnificent sequence that equates a drive down a small main street with the span of an entire life lived. In this light, Payne’s insistence on shooting in black-and-white enriches the film artistically. The story is set in a world that still, both in the cinematic and collective memory, exists in black-and-white. It’s stuck, like the leading characters, with decisions made decades ago and is still defined by the past and a diminishing number of survivors. Like the native people Che encounters in Peru in The Motorcycle Diaries, the inhabitants of Hawthorne are hanging on to a way of life that is quickly dying out; also like them, they’re doing “not too bad, not too good, just okay.”
Payne makes the prevailing sense of his work one of melancholy and decay rather than trying to impose a cloying nostalgia for the past. The way he plays the main character, Bruce Dern conveys—just through his presence, his carriage and gait—the full measure of a man who has fallen short of his own expectations, letting his wonderfully weathered face course with subtle shades of sorrow, self-loathing, and indignation. The old man Vernon sees in the bus station in Pierre’s novel might well be Woody himself: “The skin of his face hangs down in pockets, like he has lead implants. Character, they call it. It ain’t character, though; you know it’s feelings. Erosion from waves of disappointment and sadness…. the waves are mostly one-way; you collect them over a lifetime, until finally the least fucken thing makes you bawl” (85).
In close-up, Woody’s face is a ravaged, deserted landscape in itself, as bleak as his surroundings. Much like the pitchfork-wielding stoic in his reverse namesake’s most famous painting, Woody Grant is something of a cipher, his speech rarely veering from aloof responses like “Guess so” and “I suppose.” But as the film unfolds, the traumas and tiny heartbreaks of Woody’s life emerge, drip by drip, like the condensation on the glass of buttermilk he sips late at night in the kitchen, alone.
“This isn’t a tale of heroic feats” opens The Motorcycle Diaries, and the words can be applied directly to Nebraska. This inarticulate, alcoholic lump of humanity is far from heroic, but Woody’s stubbornness, and the waves of unacknowledged feeling that emanate from his grizzled, shapeless fac,e and unsteady, bulky frame, make him worth caring about. He may be a confused old drunk with a tendency to lose his teeth in odd locations, who was a crappy father to David his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), but his quest for nonexistent riches seems almost noble, and Dern fills the film’s wide open spaces with a performance of subtlety, bitter-sweetness and surpassing emotional courage. In the process, he creates a character every bit as iconic as his painterly alter-ego, one who eloquently embodies the anxieties, thwarted aspirations and stubborn tenacity of a rural middle class facing inexorable decline—an “American Gothic” for the twenty-first century.
Like Eggers in You Shall Know Our Velocity, Payne is concerned with giving a log of the characters’ journey only as much as he is with looking into the life of its protagonist. Whereas the novel allows us to enter Will’s mind, creating a stark contrast between internal and external action, Nebraska gives us only hints of what might be going on behind Woody’s placid exterior. The character’s default answers are “Don’t remember” and “Don’t know,” and his attitude towards the events of his life is largely summed up by his repeated statement, “Doesn’t matter.”
Dern, however, provides flashes of consciousness discernible behind his general inscrutability; the performance is like a window blind that’s mostly closed but can momentarily flap open to reveal what’s in the room. As the reasons for Woody’s sadness come to light, it becomes clear that, rather than being cut off from his feelings, Woody is channeling them through his quest, which becomes his last-ditch attempt at expressing hope, desire and—perhaps most importantly—long-buried generosity.
We can’t tell what he’s really thinking when David tells him, over and over again, that the million-dollar letter is a come-on for magazine subscriptions and that he hasn’t won anything. Sometimes Woody gives back an implacable hostility and sometimes he’s like a petulant child: “But it says I won!” In his obstinate belief in the prize and dogged determination to go collect it, what must be long after he’s discovered it’s not real, Woody resembles the town people and their need to believe, against all odds, that one of them has made good.
“It’s just this illusion we live with,” Will says in You Shall Know Our Velocity, “this illusion that we want to forget things. That we need to forget so we can live, because everything is too much, our burdens are so great we need to self-lobotomize, at least partially, chemically or whatever, right?” (322). Woody has certainly self-lobotomized through his alcoholism, but we’re not quite sure what he’s trying to forget until we get to Hawthorne. The poignancy of the movie resides not in the awful emptiness of Woody’s millionaire delusions, but in the sudden, extraordinary personal richness that the journey discloses.
David finds himself learning secondhand about the taciturn father he has never really known, meeting an ex-flame who competed with his mother for Woody’s affections, hearing rumors of a possible extramarital affair, and gleaning details about Woody’s service in Korea; he discovers that his dad, far from being a dull and tiresome nullity, once had a vivid existence, a complicated love life, and a remarkable war record. These startling discoveries bring the two characters closer together. In the end, Nebraska is not a movie about an old man enjoying a late-in-life epiphany as much as about the son’s kindness. Getting to know his father better is the true goal of the trip beyond any delusions of wealth. I’d venture to say that the closeness the two characters develop is worth more than the million dollars, real or imaginary.
That human connection is what Vernon is looking for in Eggers’ novel, what Che and Alberto unsuspectingly find on the road, in the villages of Peru, or the leper colony, the driving force behind Jesse and Celine getting off that train in Vienna, and the reason Will and Hand travel the world looking for people to give money to. Because, as Celine says in Before Sunrise, “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?... I believe that if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us. Not you or me… but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
This attempt doesn’t cease after the credits roll or the last page is turned. Nebraska’s final images are poignant and beautiful, but the movie, like its main character, is a thing of bruised, battered beauty. There is nothing idyllic about its depiction of the small town or its inhabitants, nothing unnecessarily sentimental or prettified in the characters’ interactions, and nothing false in the denouement. After leaving the prize office not only without any money, but with an infinitely tragic hat that proclaims, “Winner,” in big, bold letters, David engineers a consolation prize for his father, a gift that, like Nebraska itself, is both perfectly right and ineffably sad.
The journey of discovery and self-discovery is not over in the last scene, just as it is not over in the two novels and two films explored in this essay. In The Motorcycle Diaries and Vernon God Little, the characters have just discovered who they are and who they want to be, and are on the road to attaining that vision; Before Sunrise ends, appropriately, on another train, heading to a new destination; and in You Shall Know Our Velocity, Will is only two months away from his death, although he doesn’t know it yet, but for those two “glorious and interminable months we lived”—these are the last words of the novel (350). Like him, Woody might have a few months left, or a few years, or even a few days, but as he drives down that Nebraskan main street in the closing scene, away from his past and towards his future, he is utterly alive.