Nebraska (2013) is a poem about decency. It’s about breaking the cycle of distrust and selfishness and doing something for someone not because they deserve it but because they need it. It’s about seeing bitterness all around you and forcibly choosing something else. Its enduring message is to show just how out of the way people go to be nasty to each other and show just how easy it is to do the opposite, just how simple it is to change a mood. Or a life.
The movie stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, an old man in Billings, Montana, who isn’t all there. A lifelong drunk, he claims he’s off the sauce but he also claims that “beer ain’t drinking.” His wife, Kate (June Squibb), has little sensitivity for his malady, having put up with the drinking and now picking up for him since he’s lost it. Woody frequently escapes the house in an attempt to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska. He’s insistent that he’s won $1 million in a sweepstakes lottery; he even has a piece of paper to prove it. His son David (Will Forte) observes the letter and tries to explain that it’s not real, a marketing gimmick. “I didn’t even know they still did these things,” he tells his father. Woody won’t drop it; he knows he’s owed that money. Kate and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), Woody’s other son, think that a home is the best route to take. It doesn’t take much to see that Woody has not been the most attentive husband and father, and these two are more than ready to make him somebody else’s headache. Feeling guilty, David, in a dead-end job at an electronics store and recently dumped by his girlfriend because he wouldn’t commit to her, decides he’ll take Woody to Lincoln. Sure, Woody’s a headache but he won’t be anything for much longer and how much harm can come from letting the old man see for himself he’s been scammed so he’ll let it go? As it turns out, a considerable amount of harm.
First, Woody drunkenly stumbles and cracks his head open in a South Dakota hotel room. The injury leads to a reunion of sorts for the Grant family. Woody has to rest for a few days in nearby Hawthorne at his brother’s house until Kate, Ross and a number of brothers can come down and visit him. Being around family hardly makes things better as word gets out that Woody is going to be a millionaire (when David or others try to explain, people don’t believe that David would take this trip with his father for nothing and think he’s sandbagging), and suddenly everyone comes out of the woodwork about how much Woody owes them for this and that. The leader of this group is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), an old friend of Woody’s who thinks he has $10,000 coming to him, but most of Woody’s family, in their turn, come with their hands out—“Well, he didn’t really earn it,” they say, “And we helped out all those times when he was drinking,” or “It won’t be anything to him with all that money.”
What differentiates Nebraska is how pared down it is; there are few frills, no big emotional moments, everything boiled down in simplicity (it’s even in black and white). Dern gives a wrenching performance by barely giving a performance at all; he’s all confusion and anger but just simmering under the surface, and he doesn’t betray much (this makes sense considering he comes from a family of men who average about three syllables per sentence). His brief moments of lucidity come when he’s discussing what he’s going to do with his money—buy a new truck and replace his air compressor, gone for 20 years—or times when he’s paid positive attention, not the derisive or disappointed looks he’s been getting for years. “Did you see those guys?” he asks David after he tells his buddies at the bar about his winnings and they lavish him with respect. David, concerned because he knows Woody hasn’t won anything, notices the change in Woody’s demeanor just the same.
This is a movie of small moments, so when it missteps, it’s in overdoing it. The movie is often very funny, but the humor comes from the reality of it, little things like David’s disengaged cousins and their obsession with how long it should take to get from one place to another (“It took you two days to get from Billings to Hawthorne?” one says to David. “I once went from Dallas to here, that’s 850 miles, in eight hours.”). When the humor doesn’t work, it’s typically because it’s going for an effect, obviously angling for a laugh (June Squibb, who is magnificent with the type of bluntness that might have caused [and could therefore perhaps forgive] Woody’s drinking, is unfortunately often the one to be asked to go over the top in a movie that doesn’t need it). The same holds true for the movie’s hard edge. Nebraska has a lot of characters in it that we are not meant to like, and the poignancy comes mainly from the understated but doubly mean way that families can hurt each other. When that’s overdone, it undercuts the purpose, becoming the sandblasting of a point that is dependent on its delicacy to be effective.
These misapplications don’t keep the message from being effective though, which is a message that movies can relay better than any other art form: empathy. As it goes along, Nebraska becomes a stronger film; it emerges from a bog of bleak acidity into a moving picture of the value of kindness. I don’t know if Woody Grant was a great person, but I know he deserves love and decency, especially from his family. Too often we become blinded by our own issues and hurts, and movies are able to show us the feelings of others, to live as they do for a while and show us behavior that we exhibit from the perspective of somebody else. Nebraskareminded me of Harry and Tonto (1974), not just because of its cosmetically similar story focus, but because it shared a same sweetness, a same optimism, the same ideal that love can grow as long as there is at least one person willing to grow it.