Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Nebraska: Late Life Drama

Director Alexander Payne & Actor Bruce Dern
Photo by pds209.
When I moved from being a young adult to being a midlife adult, I found myself moving more from reading and watching highly fantastical stories to reading and watching more realistic stories.

I find enough high-stakes drama in realistic fiction--whether delivered in the pages of the book or in the images on a screen.

Nebraska, released November 15, 2013, is filled with the type of drama many people experience in late life: long-term family tensions, fall out from traumatic experiences, and the injuries to the soul that happen when long-held dreams collide with the disappointment of reality.

Short in black and white, the film's mood is stark. There is nothing frivolous to distract the viewers from the characters' quest for meaning, connection, and survival.

Bruce Dern (b. 1936) plays Woody Grant, a retired auto mechanic, a Korean war veteran, and a life-long alcoholic who is living in Billings, Montana.

Woody is having some trouble with his cognition (no diagnosis is ever discussed), which leads him to believe that a piece of junk mail soliciting magazine subscriptions is really a notification that he has won a million dollar prize.

Woody doesn't drive anymore, so he tries walking from Montana to Nebraska to collect his money.

After the police retrieve him a couple of times, his exasperated wife, Kate, played by June Squibb (b. 1929) asks her sons David and Ross to intervene. David, played by Will Forte (b. 1970), decides to drive his father to Lincoln, Nebraska so that Woody can see first-hand what the sweepstakes prize really entails.

As father and son embark on their road trip, the viewers see the layers peel back on this old, cantankerous man to reveal a more complex person.

On the way to Lincoln, Woody and David stop in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town where Woody grew up, married, and started his family before moving to Montana when his boys were still children. A good portion of the film is located in this small town.

Through adult eyes, David examines his father's past by talking to a handful of people central to his father's life: his brother Ray, his sister-in-law Martha, his business partner, Ed, and his high school sweetheart, Peg. Each of these people tell David things about his father that he never knew--some good, some bad. And through their revelations and a few stray comments Woody makes about himself, David's understanding of his father deepens.

As many have noted, this is a slow-paced film. However, the spaces gave me the opportunity to examine the characters and their relationships with each other.  There are no chase scenes, no burning building building, and  no dramatic rescues--at least not overtly.  But there is plenty of drama as decades' long dreams and grudges clash when Woody reconnects with people from his past.


Films about Aging A-L
Films about Aging M-Z
Movies about Mature Men Preserving Power


  1. What a touching movie Nebraska was!

  2. I didn't see the movie, my son did and liked it. Sounds thought provoking, I'll put it on my list.

  3. We were actually talking about this movie at lunch today. One of my friends just saw it on his pay-per-view and said it was very good, altho' a bit draining and depressing. Sounds good, though. Gotta see it.

  4. I never expected to like this movie - but I loved it! The acting was fantastic, and in the end, it was a story of redemption, I think.

    1. Yes, I think there is some tenderness in the conclusion. (Mild spoilers ahead). True, the bulk of the film a stark look at late-life issues, but it's not all hopeless. Kate despite her nonstop griping is very protective of her family. Woody, for all his faults is revealed to be generous. And Dave, for all the pain he feels because of his dad's weaknesses, sets him up to make a hero's return to his hometown.