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Black and White Nebraska Manages Colorful Warmth

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2013 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Black and White <i>Nebraska</i> Manages Colorful Warmth

DVD Release Date: February 25, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: November 15, 2013
Rating: R for some language
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 115 min. 
Director: Alexander Payne
Actors: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Kevin Kunkle, Devin Ratray

A gray head may be a crown of glory (Proverbs 16:31), but it also brings deterioration of mind and body. The effects of that decline have been powerfully portrayed in recent films like Away From Her, Iris and The Iron Lady, all focused on female protagonists. Nebraska, the new film from director Alexander Payne (The Descendants), shows the decline of Grant family patriarch Woody (Bruce Dern, The Astronaut Farmer), who believes he needs to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to redeem a $1 million prize. The letter informing him he might be a millionaire is nothing more than a come-on to sell magazine subscriptions, but Woody, descending into dementia, is convinced otherwise. If he could just get to Nebraska, he'd collect the prize, buy a truck and spend his final years in happiness.

Woody's wife, Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), has given up on communicating with her husband. Theirs is a marriage in which the wife constantly shouts at and berates her husband. He never listened all that well to her and now no longer understands much of what she's telling him. "If he won $1 million, I’d put him in a home," she tells her son David (Will Forte, MacGruber).

A consumer-electronics salesman, David rises to his dad's challenge to drive him to Lincoln ("What else you got going on?" as Woody puts it). David calls in sick to work and sets out on the long trip, grabbing another chance to connect with his dad before Woody's decline grows more severe.

It's not long into the journey when David and Woody find themselves in a bar, where David confronts his father over lingering hurts and issues from childhood, particularly Woody's alcoholism. But rather than apologize or reckon with his past behavior, Woody brushes aside David's charge and pushes him into joining him for several beers. "Beer's not drinking," Woody insists.

The father/son journey takes a detour to the home of David's two cousins (Kevin Kunkle and Devin Ratray), overweight slobs whose resentment of David and pathetic need to feel superior to their cousin are obvious from the second we meet the duo. Then a parade of relatives and a former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach, The Bourne Legacy), hearing that Woody is on his way to great wealth, descend on Woody's family with demands that he settle up long-ago debts and "make things right."

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

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: November 22, 2013