Nebraska is about aging, dignity and greed, but it excels most as a simply father/son story. Woody may be fading mentally, but during moments of lucidity he's able to answer David's questions about his marriage with directness and honesty. Why did he marry Kate? It seemed like the right thing to do. Why did he have children? He liked sex and figured David’s mother, a Catholic, was bound to conceive once or twice.

But Nebraska doesn't settle for being only about David's past hurts. We also learn about Woody's life as a child, when his brother died of scarlet fever at age 2 while sharing a bed with Woody, who was spared the disease. As for Woody's habit of giving his children sips of beer, it could be rooted in his own father's habit of doing the same thing to Woody when a boy.

Payne has been accused of looking down on his characters in films such as About Schmidt. That charge doesn't stick for the main characters in Nebraska, which is, if anything, compassionate in its depiction of an irascible, even unsympathetic protagonist and his long-suffering, salty-tongued wife. The smaller roles, which tend toward one-dimensional, aren't always as successful.

Although faith themes are not explicit in Nebraska, David’s efforts on behalf of his father can be seen as an effort to fulfill the fifth commandment. The story also shows how greed can fester in the heart (Proverbs 28:25, 1 Timothy 6:10, Hebrews 13:5). While Woody and Kate are blunt in their criticism of each other, their marriage has survived temptations that would sink other unions.

Nebraska is a mostly warm, sometimes caustic look at the loss of cognitive and physical abilities as we age. But it also shows the importance of personal dignity in the face of personal challenges, and the crucial role of family in preserving health and some form of happiness. Beautifully filmed in black and white, Nebraska is one of the year's more colorful, life-affirming stories, and another triumph for Payne, who’s assembling a body of work for mature audiences that is second to none among American filmmakers.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “son of a b-tch”; “go--amn”; “d-mn”; crude reference to oral sex; racial epithet; the “f”-word
  • Drinking/Smoking: Woody is an alcoholic; David says he quit drinking because it “wasn’t helping,” but later he drinks with his father; scenes of drinking, usually in a bar
  • Sex/Nudity: None shown; David asks his girlfriend, who has moved out, if they can still have sex; roadside urination; blunt discussion of sex and conception; Kate mentions several earlier instances of men who she believes wanted to sleep with her; Woody’s old flame says she “wouldn’t let him around the bases”; verbal reference to an earlier-in-life affair
  • Violence/Crime: Recollection of a snowboarding accident; a head wound is stitched; a man is said to be sentenced to community service over sexual assault; men fight; Woody remembers that he’d be whipped if he was found in his parents’ bedroom; a younger man punches an older man
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: David lives with his girlfriend, but she’s moved out, tired of the uncertain status of their relationship; Woody says David would drink if he were married to Kate; a woman says “the good Lord” did no favors to a certain woman in the looks department; a joke about Catholics not being “caught dead” around Lutherans in a cemetery; a man is said to have once wanted a divorce; Ed says, sarcastically, that divorce used to be looked down on, but based on how common it now is, God must have changed his mind about it

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Publication date: November 22, 2013