Nebraska (the movie) is touted as one of the best movies of 2013. Its star, Bruce Dern, was nominated for an Academy Award. I concur with the second opinion and most definitely disagree with the former estimate. This movie paints a dark and caustic portrait of the heartland of America. Its pallet, black and white—a metaphor for the attitudes the filmmakers insinuate. The color choice whispers old, faded, depressed, unimaginative, zero sum game loser. Nebraska is ungenerous and mean-spirited.
The story begins with an old, disheveled looking man walking along the highway. He is Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern. The character’s name evokes Grant Wood, known for his painting “American Gothic.” Woody is determined to walk from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his magazine sweepstakes million dollar prize. I’m sure everyone in America recognizes the reference. Woody will not be dissuaded from his conviction that he is a million dollar winner. His younger son David, ably played by Will Forte, agrees to drive his dad to Lincoln, Nebraska which is the headquarters of the sweepstakes company. They set off, with Will trying to convince his father that the trip is a waste of time. The two agree to stop for a family reunion in Hawthorne, Nebraska. In Hawthorne, Woody’s home town, we meet various Grants whose chief occupation seems to be sitting blankly in front of the television. When the town learns of Woody’s good fortune some try to tap into Woody’s million, citing imagined assistance extended to him when he lived in Hawthorne. After Woody’s former business partner humiliates him in front of most of the town, Will decides to continue their journey to Lincoln. This final plot twist during in the last thirty minutes of the movie keeps the film from being unredeemable. Remember, however, that the son was born in Montana.
Nebraska (the movie) reveals Hollywood’s contempt for “red states,” represented by Nebraska (the state). The film’s depictions undermine respect for the dignity of its elderly protagonist, denigrate small town rural America and mock its values. Hawthorne—heartland, Christian, Republican archetype—devolves into a venal, small minded, sterile, hypocritical and mean spirited American Gothic still life when filmed through Hollywood’s distorted lens. All this from the folks who, in their movies and TV dramas, promote drugs, sex, and all things encouraged. Hicks 0, Cool Flicks 1.
The lifestyle and characters portrayed in the movie are dull and irrelevant—Zombie-like families riveted to the television whose only recreation consists of heavy bouts of drinking in one of the town’s taverns and overblown reminiscences of youthful sexuality. The lasting image is of an old man propped on an upright chair placed at the side of the only road running through town, going nowhere, waiting for nothing. The movie’s cardboard characters are losers, used up, out of place in the ultra-liberal, tech savvy, connected world of Hollywood. Small town fossils with petrified minds only merit contempt clearly outlined in black and white.
As for the plot, there is nothing funny about the elderly being duped by sweepstake or other types of scams. As a librarian I have had frustrating conversations with older patrons trying to convince them that the unsolicited sweepstakes notification did not necessarily mean that they had won a major prize. Guilt for wanting something for nothing (“I’d best order a couple of magazine subscriptions.”) was carefully balanced with the desire for self-esteem through good luck (“I’m the lucky winner!”) in their minds. All the sweepstakes company wanted was their money. Nebraska carefully sidesteps the morality of this one with a shrug and an “oh well.” …there’s one born every minute.
Why do seniors in particular seem to fall prey to this gimmick? Like Woody, they are trusting; they are lonely. They want to believe in this final chance at good fortune because of their penury and fear, because they hope that, in leaving a legacy to their children, they will be loved. A significant prize awards them one final chance to feel alive, involved, and important. Does the movie temper its ridicule with the pathos of grey or an understanding ochre? Not a chance. Woody’s not a likeable character and he’s a drunk. His quest is less Quixotic than querulous.
Nebraska hits ‘em when they’re down. Even the semi-warmhearted ending conceals a final slam. I won’t be a spoiler and reveal the ending, but it doesn’t take much to fool some folks! This movie seems to ask when will somebody tell these “booze-addled” old fogies to pull the sod over their conservative, out of touch and used up lives, already long buried by irrelevancy. Nebraska—no pity; just spite.