2 Stars – Empty
The choice to film in black and white is appropriate for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The bleak landscape of winter in the northern states creates a depression that color would only confuse. It is not only the cinematography that depresses the viewers, but it is also the empty and colorless lives of the characters portrayed. Even when love finally finds a place in their lives, it is sad that this is the best their lives could produce. But all of that is not to say that this isn’t a masterpiece of cinematic creation. Growing up in Omaha and reflecting the worst of small town America in its vacant focus on alcohol, cars, sex and gossip, Payne (The Descendants) is the perfect director for writer Bob Nelson, who was raised in South Dakota.
The central characters are Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte). An old alcoholic who has spent his entire life in lonely inebriation, Woody convinces himself that the letter from a marketing company declaring that he is the winner of $1 million dollars is true. He rejects the counsel of his wife Kate (June Squibb) and oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) who point out that he has to have the winning number to actually be the recipient of the funds. Attempting to walk to Nebraska because he had long ago lost his driver’s license, David agrees to drive him from their home in Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska. But when Woody goes on a bender and injures himself, his hospital stay requires them to spend the weekend in Woody and Kate’s hometown 200 miles from Omaha. It is here that we begin to understand how Woody’s life went so horribly wrong, which is something he is not willing to think about.
We won’t spoil what Woody and David discover, but the journey is one that reveals layers and generations of dysfunction and the people such families produce. It also reveals how empty life can be if there is no larger purpose.
The artistic nature of the film and its stark portrayal of people living empty lives is effective, yet the story that is told is bleak. If all that can be found in life of value is a momentary act of honor and the granting of dignity to a person who long ago lost his own self-respect, then that is in itself unsatisfying.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. Since this part of the United States is populated by courageous, self-reliant people with deep family roots, why do you think both Payne and Nelson depict such empty lives? What do you think their purpose is? Why do you answer as you do?
2. The statement by Jean Westendorf (Eula Freudenburg) that “alcohol caught Woody at a young age because there was nothing else to do” is an interesting claim. Recent surveys find that two-thirds of young adults in Nebraska admit binge drinking in the last month. What do you think can help these young adults find a better way of life?
3. The fixation that Kate has on sex is similar to Woody’s obsession with alcohol. How would you help them if you were their son David? Have you been in a similar situation in your own family? If so, how did you respond to the dysfunction?