Nebraska (2013)

nebraska

Altered State

There’s a terrific scene early in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s wonderful new film, where a son and his elderly father on a road trip from Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska stop at Mount Rushmore. At first, the dad, Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) doesn’t respond positively when his son David (played by Will Forte) suggests they take a short detour to the Black Hills on their way through South Dakota. Even when they get there, they merely stop their car in front of the ranger’s station, presumably so they do not have to pay the entrance fee to the national park. Woody remains unimpressed. He critiques Gutzon Borglum’s work, saying that it looks unfinished. Indeed, Woody is correct: Borglum died in March 1941, so his son Lincoln tried to finish his father’s sculpture. A mere eight months later, with Depression-era public works funding exhausted, the project came to a permanent end. After a short few moments staring at this “incomplete” artwork, Woody says they’ve now seen it, and they can resume their journey to Omaha to collect what he believes to be his one million dollar publisher’s clearinghouse prize.

I begin with this scene because national monuments are typically used in a very different way in Hollywood cinema. From North by Northwest (1959) to National Treasure II: Book of Secrets (2007), Mount Rushmore usually serves to connect the national security to individual tales of romance. In Hitchcock’s film, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) defeats communists and rescues CIA agent Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint) so that he may marry her, lifting her from the edge of the monument into his honeymoon bed aboard a train about to streak into a tunnel.

Payne’s film positions Borglum’s monumental sculpture, not as the triumph of America, but as an emblem of its incompleteness. Payne’s films are obsessed with mere snippets of American geography, depicting local environs (Southern Californian wine country in Sideways, Omaha in About Schmidt, and Hawaii in The Descendants). Indeed, Nebraska is a wondrous inversion of About Schmidt. In the earlier film, Warren (played by Jack Nicholson), upon the death of his wife (also played by June Squibb, Woody’s wife in Nebraska), buys an RV so that he can leave his insurance sales job in Omaha and drive westward across Nebraska to see his daughter get married in Denver. The film concerns an old man who reconciles with his daughter by traveling west. In Nebraska, a son has to drive his elderly father east to finally come to understand their confounding relationship.

The incompleteness of Mount Rushmore articulates the theme of Nebraska: no one can know another person, but the road serves as the framework through which we might encounter a person’s complexities. Nebraska is an exquisite character study. The film’s events force us to constantly ratchet through our opinions about each person we meet. Early in the film, Woody’s wife Kate seems so cruel. She is sick of his drunken stubbornness, and berates her sons David and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) for indulging him so much. However, later in the film, when Kate comes to visit Woody in his hometown in western Nebraska, she sticks up for him unexpectedly.

Woody announces to the town that he has won one million dollars. All of Woody’s distant relatives come out of the woodwork demanding him to repay his debts. Kate finally has enough and argues that they all owe Woody, that he was such a nice person, he never said no to anyone. This kind soul is by no means the Woody with whom David and the audience have met. In his greatest performance, Bruce Dern plays Woody as stubborn and cantankerous, the kind of parent who would make us cringe to be around. In one scene, Woody enters his hometown bar for the first time in decades, hoping to reunite with his old friends. As David looks around the empty establishment, with a few lonely souls at the bar, we know this cannot end well. As Woody stubbornly walks up to some women at the bar, David shakes his head, yet without missing a beat, follows behind his father to help care for the man. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve done exactly the same thing. As my 83-year-old mother fights with a cashier over being charged a few extra pennies for toilet paper at the grocery store, every nerve ending in my body is screaming to run away, and yet I do not. This is not the heroic stuff of Mount Rushmore films—the dueling spies in North by Northwest or the seekers of lost gold in National Treasure—nor is it the celebration of the national leaders in Borglum’s sculpture—but it is important nonetheless.

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina (1887) with the cheeky observation that all families are uniquely dysfunctional: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And the unstated corollary, of course, like some kind of Catskills joke, is that there aren’t any happy families. Nebraska is a film in that melodramatic tradition. It takes our everyday lives and positions them as meaningfully tragic. Payne’s film reigns in Bruce Dern, whose role as the discarded father of polygamist Bill Henrickson on HBO’s Big Love was a tour-de-force of nasty insanity. Payne refuses to settle for the easy depiction of parents who ruined their children’s lives. Instead, Payne understands that no matter how flawed parents are, they almost never ruin their children’s lives, but for better or worse, they truly do shape who we are. Woody Grant will not win father of the year anytime soon, but nor is he a monster.

This is the symbolic lesson of Borglum’s Mount Rushmore, perfect despite its incompleteness. The great presidents of mythology that Borglum intended to place on the mountain, resplendent from head to waist, are only partially depicted. The films that canonize the mountain as the symbolic location of American greatness suffer from a reductive assumption: either you are a national hero, or a communist. Payne’s beautiful film indicates that every moment of our lives must be incomplete, because that moment irrevocably followed by others just like it.

When he arrives in his hometown, Woody tells David about the automotive repair shop he used to run with Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). When we finally meet Ed, he turns out to be a complete jerk, the film’s villain. Throughout the film, David has been trying to convince his father that the certificate he believes guarantees him the one million dollars is a sham, Woody stubbornly refuses to believe it. After some of the Grants’ ne’er-do-well relatives steal the paper from Woody, believing him to be a millionaire, they discover that the document is merely a piece of junk mail. After they throw it away on the street, Ed picks it up and shows it around the bar, positioning Woody as an object of ridicule. When David sees the devastating effect this is having on his father, he punches Ed, allowing David to fully come into his own as a man for the first time. That David can both be the film’s voice of reason early on, and the defender of his father’s integrity late in the film, demonstrates that the incompleteness of Mount Rushmore is the correct positioning of human identity.

When they finally arrive in Omaha, they discover the sweepstakes center is a pathetic office in a small industrial park. When the worker there looks up Woody’s certificate, she confirms that he is not a winner. She offers him a hat instead. David, unwilling to let his father die in abject disappointment, sells his own car to buy his father a new truck and an air compressor, the two things Woody said he was going to acquire with his winnings. As Woody drives his new truck through his hometown wearing a hat stating he is a “prize winner,” David has given his father an exquisite gift, allowing against all odds the absurd journey to Omaha to have been a success.

As they leave the small town, Woody stops the truck and switches seats with David so that his son can drive them safely back to Billings. In an exquisite final shot, Payne in extreme long shot frames the truck pointing westward, isolated on the lonely road. It is the film’s final expression of incompleteness. For David certainly, but also Woody, the journey has folded back on itself. While each has gotten to know the other better, and we certainly are blessed to have been along for the ride, the moments after the film is over will change these dynamics inexorably. Even as the end credits roll, Payne’s film insists on the always in progress nature of our lives, up until that final moment when take our last breath. This is something the cinema is the perfect art form to convey: when the camera is turned off, a certain kind of death occurs. The magic box has brought people to life by projecting their images on a screen. When the light ceases, the characters cease to exist; for all practical purposes, they die. As much as Mount Rushmore tries to indicate otherwise in monumental granite, the cinema is a machine of the ephemeral, of that which is always in motion, always doomed to incompleteness. In short, the movies are the perfect art form for telling our stories.

– Walter Metz