Americana: A Tribute to Nothingland in A. Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Nebraska: a story of the heartland. An Americana gem. Black and white and cold throughout, Alexander Payne’s latest feature seems to be a carefully crafted study of small town living. An old man journeys from Montana to Nebraska to cash in what he believes to be his golden ticket. No one in the story actually believes the ticket to be worth $1,000,000, but Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is so determined to see for himself that his son (played by Will Forte) comes feel he must prove his father could win this highly improbable prize, even if it means proving the opposite.

The opening image of Woody walking, drunk and determined, along the side of a road introduces him as a man who has been dependent, who is finally acting on some desire that others don’t know how to approve of: He’s an alcoholic who lost his license, so he’s walking to get his hypothetical million dollars because his wife refused to drive him- refused to believe in his belief that he could win. When David decides to drive him he starts up the story itself, which turns out to be one of the three cathartic decisions that play out in the story, followed by a good punch in a villain’s face and the purchase of long-awaited gifts. David switches back and forth over the line drawn between playing the father and being a son.

Soon after the journey behind, Woody and David end up stuck in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where there many uncles and cousins, and much pettiness brewing under the surface level politeness (the blanket over the stale nothingness). The story of Woody Grant and his son David, is more about survival. How do people survive where there’s so little to stimulate them into taking action of any kind, for their own future, for the good of their family? Inertia is the usual, as Payne paints it. Woody may be suffering from dementia, but there’s a strong case for saying that by doing something crazy, he’s doing what he can to stop the suffering of boredom in his palpably purposeless existence. His purpose for following the ticket never erupts, really. It’s better illustrated by his quiet stirring- his persistence to get where he said he was going, by foot or with assistance- no matter what. He’s verbally degraded for sticking to his guns, but we learn part-way through that he’s always been used, because he’s kind-hearted, but mainly gullible. Giving. He just wants a chance, and what’s keeping him back? Nothing. He recognizes that like no one else in the story: there’s nothing going on in Montana, or Nebraska, or the places they stop in between, so there’s literally no reason not to try to grab something amazing, like $1,000,000. Woody isn’t crazy; he’s free.

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