review of Nebraska

Posted: December 8, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the world of careers and jobs.]

A Story of Hope

I recently saw my favorite movie of the year, Nebraska.  This film by director Alexander Payne has it all:  a great story, compelling characters, and unforgettable scenery.  In some ways it’s a very simple story: An old man named Woody Grant thinks he has won a million dollars through a magazine promotion.  He and his son David travel to Nebraska to claim the winnings.  David understands that his father has not won the money, but he wants him to have the dignity that comes with belief and freedom.

Nebraska is a very funny movie with serious implications.  No character in this movie leads a happy life.  Woody’s sons have dead end jobs in Billings, Montana.  Their cousins have no opportunity in rural Nebraska.  The older characters repeatedly ponder lost opportunities and lost loves.  Woody, a man of few words, embodies all of these character in his dreams of winning a million dollars.  Beyond a few minor purchases, he doesn’t have any real use for the money.  He wants it because there is nothing else in his life.

On the emotional level, Payne contrasts love of people and love of money.  Where Woody and his family care for each other and view their history in Nebraska as one of human connections, many of the people in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, only see Woody as a potential ATM machine.  His former business partner (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) demands $10,000 as a repayment for loans made decades before.  Other relatives ask for their share, only to be driven off by Woody’s wife who reminds them that her husband did far more for them than they did for him. His bumbling nephews steal his prize notification certificate, only to learn that their uncle’s dream is a joke.

Once Woody’s fantasy is revealed for what it is, the people who wanted his money begin to mock him.  They have nothing in their lives, which makes their venom even more poisonous.  In some way, this aspect of the film reflects a country that has given up on work and saving to put all of its hope into fantasies of risk and luck.  Woody briefly became their hope, a winning lottery ticket.  When that dream died, they attack with scorn built through years of hopelessness.  Payne reflects this mood in scenes of a landscape that is both empty and hauntingly beautiful.  He portrays the town of Hawthorne as if it were frozen in the 1970s.

Despite these dark moments and motifs, Nebraska is also a great reflection on love and hope.  David is rock steady in supporting his father.  He takes him on the journey to Nebraska despite the protests of his mother and older brother, two characters who are first portrayed as sour know-it-alls who want to put Woody in a home.  However, as they encounter the people of Hawthorne, mother and son come to support Woody, which gives the film a richer emotional depth.  I won’t describe the ending, but it fits in being both touching and plausible.  While many critics have singled out Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, which is fantastic, all of the actors capture their characters in a way that grips the audience, letting us share their dreams and nightmares.  Nebraska takes us on a journey.  At the end, we feel rewarded – as if we’d won the prize.