Magazine | December 31, 2013, Issue

Broken Heartland

A review of Nebraska

I was not entirely looking forward to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, mostly because I worried that the movie, about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road trip, sounded an awful lot like Payne’s last movie about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road trip — 2002’s About Schmidt, in which Jack Nicholson delivered a performance so depressing that the movie theaters should have spiked their sodas with Wellbutrin.

Payne has a unique style — a blend of comedy and tragedy, satire and realism — that tends to sharpen, in good ways and bad, when the setting is his native heartland. (He was born in Omaha, and still keeps a home there today.) Sometimes this sharpening produces something peerless, like Election, his near-perfect 1999 film about the battle for a high-school presidency. But sometimes it leaves a nasty aftertaste — a mix of condescension, disappointment, and misanthropy that can feel like the too-harsh judgment of a made-good native son.

Partway through Nebraska, I thought we were headed for exactly that kind of place — somewhere even darker and danker than About Schmidt, not least because this movie is shot in a clinical, depressing black-and-white. A bone-deep unhappiness permeates the first half of the film — the unhappiness of Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant, a seventysomething alcoholic sliding into dementia; of his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb), alternating beratings and complaints; and of his younger son, David (Will Forte, late of Saturday Night Live, and a typical Payne casting-against-type), a midlife mediocrity with a dead-end job selling audio equipment and a girlfriend, plain and heavyset, who’s just dumped him because he won’t commit.

The Grants now live in Billings, Mont., but they hail from a small town in Nebraska, Hawthorne, where Woody’s father farmed and Woody himself once kept an auto-repair shop. And Hawthorne is where they all end up, thanks to the half-senile Woody’s conviction that a Publishers Clearing House–style come-on is really a million-dollar-winning lottery ticket. This delusion inspires him to set out on foot, repeatedly and hopelessly, for the sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, until the exasperated David finally agrees to drive him there — hoping to snap him out of the delusion, to snap himself out of his own torpor, and perhaps, just perhaps, to make some last connection with a father slipping away into the dark.

#page#The road trip goes badly: Woody is recessive, embittered, unreachable, with nothing good to say about his life, no interest in his son’s attempts at kindness. He gets stone-drunk somewhere in South Dakota and ends up in a hospital, at which point David decides to let him recuperate at his brother’s home in Hawthorne, in the bosom of the extended Grant clan. Kate joins them via Greyhound bus, and their older son, a semi-successful TV reporter (Bob Odenkirk), comes down for the weekend as well. But when they arrive, they find a clan, and a town, that have bought completely into Woody’s million-dollar fantasy — simultaneously hailing him as a local hero and circling him like sharks.

This confusion sounds like the plot of a giddy screwball comedy, but while Nebraska has laughs throughout, everything about the setup is pitch-black. Hawthorne is recession-ravaged; Woody’s extended family are taciturn, unpleasant, or (in the case of his heavyset nephews, both unemployed and one on probation for sexual assault) simply stupid; his “old friend” and former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) is sinister behind the bonhomie. The performances are wonderful — Dern is getting all kinds of deserved praise, and the supporting cast matches his standard — but for a time it seems as if they’re all just in the service of the grimmest possible depiction of intergenerational unhappiness and heartland decline.

But then comes a small scene in the Hawthorne newspaper office, where David meets the paper’s editor (Angela McEwan), an old flame of his father’s whose own life has actually been happy, and who remembers Woody warmly, nostalgically, and perceptively, as someone somewhat different from the man David thinks he knows. This scene works as a kind of crack in the story, through which faint rays can enter, casting everything we’ve seen in a somewhat more forgiving light.

The change doesn’t alter Woody’s essential characteristics — he remains crabbed, inaccessible, half-deluded, overfond of drink. There is no sudden epiphany or transformation, just a gradual reorientation of how we see his life, his family, his wife, his past. It isn’t that he ceases to be the person we’ve followed through the movie’s grim first half, but rather that we come to see a little better how that person came to be — and through that understanding, to respect, admire, forgive.

None of this eliminates the movie’s tragic element: Nebraska remains, at its heart, a story about an unsuccessful, disappointed life. But it’s a story that also shows that there can be love and grace even in a life that doesn’t turn out as one would hope, and that such a disappointment need not be the last or only word on something as complicated as the human heart.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Built to Last

Has the Founders’ revival peaked? The big bios of the big names, now in big paperback editions, still sit on bookstore shelves, like Pleistocene megafauna, yet the subject stimulates feelings ...
Politics & Policy

Generation Gaps

A couple of times while writing this review I almost typed “Bill Clinton” instead of “Pat Conroy.” That’s not surprising. The former president and the bestselling novelist who wrote The ...
Politics & Policy

Broken Heartland

I was not entirely looking forward to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, mostly because I worried that the movie, about an old man taking stock of his life on a Plains-state road ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Appalachian Immigration Reading Kevin D. Williamson’s article (“Left Behind,” December 16) reminded me of my experience working with urbanized Appalachians in the Indianapolis neighborhood known as Stringtown back in the early ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Maybe Kim Jong Un’s uncle tried to talk to him about Obamacare over Thanksgiving. ‐ Supporters of Obamacare decided to start saying that the website is now basically working, never ...
Athwart

The New Inequality

For about 47 minutes the president successfully moved the conversation to income inequality, the very existence of which proves that the fundamental transformation of America into a grey smear of ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

PICTURESQUE Rising ambitiously, they set a goal Of smoking out the red, reluctant sun, Which smolders like some just-embarrassed coal. Whatever looks to start has not begun, But still the clouds’ bombastic undersides – All glowing ...
Happy Warrior

Heading South

Whether or not Nelson Mandela was emblematic of the new South Africa, his memorial service certainly was. Thamsanqa Jantjie, the lovable laugh-a-minute sign-language fraud who stood alongside President Obama gesticulating ...

Most Popular

Culture

School Shootings and the Incentives of Violence

Today’s Morning Jolt discusses school shootings and the common difficulties of the teenage years, and I thought of another aspect that I forgot to include -- the degree to which our society, in its reaction to violence, inadvertently rewards that violence. Every teenager wants attention, to be recognized, to ... Read More
NR Marketing

Down the Home Stretch

Our Spring 2018 Webathon winds up this week. El jefe, Mr. Lowry, makes the case, wonderfully, for your participating, even at this final stage. In case you need some visual inspiration, we’ll use this horse race image from the novel Ben Hur (you'll remember the 1959 movie version starred the late NR ... Read More
Immigration

On a Willful Lie from the Press

This claim is omnipresent on social media and beyond: Trump lashed out at undocumented immigrants during a White House meeting, calling those trying to breach the country’s borders “animals” https://t.co/aQNeu29T6e pic.twitter.com/ogrFKaWyDZ — The New York Times (@nytimes) May 16, 2018 Peruse ... Read More
PC Culture

The Nature of Progressive Insensitivity

Former vice president Joe Biden is back in the news yet again. For a second time, he seems surprised that poor residents of the inner city are capable of doing sophisticated jobs: We don't think ordinary people can do things like program, code. It's not rocket science, guys. So, we went and we hired some folks ... Read More
Culture

The Feminization of Everything Fails Our Boys

Let me share with you two troubling — and, I believe, closely linked — news reports. The first, from this weekend, comes courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry. In one chart, he highlights the dramatic and growing gender gap in higher education. In short, women are dominating: ... Read More