It’s sorely tempting to not try to write anything about Nebraska because the film does such a fantastic job on its own. I feel like anything that I would want to say is better captured in the way it’s directed, shot, and acted. But, I have a job to do so here goes anyway.
1) Not using the metric system is dumb
Nebraska starts in Billings, Montana, where Woody (Bruce Dern) receives a notice in the mail from a magazine sweepstakes that he may be the winner of a $1,000,000 prize. Woody takes it upon himself to head to the sweepstakes office in person since a million dollars is not a matter that can be trusted to the mail. So, to the chagrin of his family, Woody keeps heading out on foot to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Being Canadian, I had no idea of the scope of this journey. While I measure my height in feet and my weight in pounds, I’ve always measured large distances in kilometers. Whenever the characters in Nebraska start talking about how many miles there are still to go, it literally means nothing to me. Three days later, I’m finally plunking the cities into Google maps and my god, that’s a long distance. Billings, MT (because apparently that’s how you abbreviate Montana) is 898 miles from Lincoln, NE (because apparently that’s how you abbreviate Nebraska). Seeing it on a map and translating it into metric (1,445 kilometers) puts the whole thing into scope but until doing so, the absurdity of 80-something Woody taking the journey on foot was lost on this poor Northern viewer.
According, again, to Google Maps, the journey can be done in 811 miles (1,305 km) if you do it on foot but its 264 hour estimation certainly doesn’t take into consideration that limping, old Woody moves at about quarter-speed.
2) Live like there’s no tomorrow
It feels like a disservice to this film to boil down its themes and characters to a simple platitude that’s been uttered a million times before but it really is the source of a ton of Nebraska’s power. The film is plentifully characterized with people who are living, confident in the presence of tomorrows. If anything, the Nebraskan townsfolk Woody visits have an abundance of tomorrows and don’t see much point in doing anything different today since tomorrow is going to bring a bunch more of the same. These are people who sit around the TV when family comes to visit from out of state, lightly skimming the same topics of conversation they’re rehearsed so many times before. There’s a scene that somewhat adorably exemplifies this maddening complacency when one old man, asking another about their car responds entirely in rote dialogue, “They don’t make them like that any more. Those cars will run forever. Whatever happened to it?” “Stopped running,” is the reply. Without a trace of irony, the first old man responds “Well, they’ll do that.” All the while, these two and six other men barely blink as they glazily stare at some sporting event on the TV none of them seem all that invested in. It’s a perfect demonstration of how easy it is to slip into such a rehearsed comfort that not a spare thought is given to doing anything else. It takes the looming fear of death to combust that complacency into regret.
As Woody approaches the end of his life, it seems that everything serves as a reminder of what is gone and will never return. A drive through his hometown is a who’s who of dead friends and relatives. His wife, who “saved him” by taking him away from the town when they got married filters most of her interactions with insistence on her past desirability; she’s obsessed with the woman she used to look like and the men who used to lust after her. When they visit Woody’s childhood home, we see an abandoned house with empty rooms and pieces of the broken crib that once held his baby brother, also now dead. Even most of his dreams have withered away: when Woody’s son, David, asks him if he ever wanted to farm like his own father, Woody just can’t remember. When Woody looks back on his life, the only things still left going are a few, seemingly trivial desires – to own a new truck and to replace the compressor he lent to a friend decades ago. These desires are the impetus of Woody’s journey. When he gets the sweepstakes flyer in the mail, he doesn’t see the scam, he doesn’t see the futility of the journey, he just sees that there is something that he can do to embiggen the glimmer of life he hasn’t yet lost forever.
3) Just be yourself and hopefully someone will care
Nebraska isn’t the story of a man learning how to be a different person or changing for the better. It’s an honest portrait of who he is and where he is from. In their journey to Nebraska, David exposes and explores some of Woody’s flaws but the film never punishes Woody for them. It’s too late in the game for that. These discoveries are for David’s sake, to better understand his father as a person and not just as the boozy old caricature he has imagined him to be.
Take Woody’s relationship with alcohol, for an example. IMDb describes Woody as “booze-addled” while Netflix calls him a “boozer.” Woody likes to drink. Whether it’s hard liquor or beer (because “beer ain’t drinkin’”), every pit stop is accompanied by a beeline to the nearest tavern. David resents all the drinking but since he’s getting to know his father, he also agrees to have a beer with his old man. It’s not until David meets an old girlfriend of Woody’s who explains that alcoholism happens to pretty much everyone in that town since there isn’t much else to do, that David lets up and recognizes that while an addiction to alcohol isn’t the healthiest way to live a life, there isn’t any good any more that will come from fighting it.
We also learn about some other indiscretions in Woody’s past but these, too, while not forgiven, are far enough in the past to be irrelevant to the present and limited future.
On the other hand, we also discover a sweet, generous side of Woody that seems to have been hidden under a curtain of cantakerousness somewhere along the way. His instinct to offer help to friends and family is a knee-jerk reaction that we learn has also been the source of some strife in the past. Woody is a simple man seeking simple pleasures in a world that forgot to teach him how to be cynical. “He just believes stuff that people tell him,” David tells the employee at the sweepstakes office, who replies “Oh… that’s too bad.” There is a part of Woody to be treasured, which makes him a person deserving of acknowledgment. He’s not heroic to the point of needing the world to remember his existence but it’s important that one person, David, has taken the time to help Woody and his naive hope see the pursuit of happiness to its end.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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Nebraska is also available from Amazon.