Just after the most recent snow storm I drove over the icy roads to the White Bear Lake movie theatre to watch Nebraska. I love driving in wide open spaces and the idea of watching someone take a journey from Montana to Nebraska was very appealing.
The movie opened with Woody walking on busy road in Billings, Montana. He is an elderly, alcoholic who has convinced himself that he’s won a million dollars. His ticket to wealth is a sweepstakes offer that everyone but him can see won’t stand up. But Woody won’t let it go. He has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his winnings. He can’t drive, so he decided to walk. His son, David sees that Woody won’t let the fantasy go, so he offers to drive off on what he sees as a family road trip.
On their way to Lincoln they ended up in the fictitious town of Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody’s brother lived there. Soon the small town hears about Woody’s winnings. Despite David’s attempt to clear up the confusion the fantasy wins over.
Woody is suddenly going to be rich—and that “reality” brings out the best and worst in people of Hawthorne. Many want to congratulate him on his good fortune and the newspaper wants to do a story. When David goes to the office he discovers that Woody and the newspaper editor were once in love. But the smell of money among some of the people in Hawthorne can’t be missed. Woody’s former partner tries to strong arm an old debt from them. His brother’s family brings up an old financial obligation too.
Hidden family stories and secrets slowly come to the surface. David learns more about his father than he wanted to know. Woody doesn’t share often, but with a few drinks old family stories emerge.
My favorite scene was when David and his brother tried to get back an air compressor. Woody had complained for a long time about a man who borrowed but never returned an air compressor. When they traveled past the farm, the boys realize they had a chance to finally stop their dad’s incessant complaining. They ran into the barn to take back the “stolen” item. As they were driving away with the loot they realized that they had been in the wrong place. So the boys take the air compressor back to the barn. As they were in the barn the family suddenly drives up. Oops. Awkward. Embarrassing. Hilarious.
The film was shot in black and white—which didn’t work for me. I also thought the caricature of Woody’s cousins, Cole and Bart, didn’t work. They came across as two fat, ignorant, and uninteresting men. I’m not sure what they were supposed to represent.
Bruce Dern as Woody carried the movie. His forlorn and stubborn look shared the confusion of our times. He had a fantasy that his family knew wouldn’t work. When pressed about why he wanted to go to Lincoln, he shared that he just wanted to leave something for his sons. And at the end of the movie he did, though it took the creativeness of David to make it work.
Watching Nebraska is like driving through the plains on a road trip. With plenty of time on their hands Woody and David can’t help but share their lives with each other. What emerged wasn’t always pretty, but it was their story. And ultimately it’s many of our stories.