Not too long into this 1-hour 46-minute film, there is a scene that probably is the only philosophical statement, one that sets the tone for what is to come. Noel (Missy Doty), the estranged wife of David Grant (Will Forte), pays him a visit in his pad, and on seeing the withering flowers in the sitting room, tells him to water them. “They are plants, Will. They need water,” she tells him. As simple as that.
In Nebraska, Alexander Payne tells the story of an avuncular generation in an avuncular town, of parents and children, of pride and goodness, and most importantly, of love. Relationships are pretty much like a plant. They need watering, which is the love you give them. Without it, they simply wither.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an ageing man who loves his drink and who finds a million-dollar sweepstakes prize ticket in his mailbox. Woody wants to collect it. The problem is, he lives in Billings, Montana and the sweepstakes office is some 850 miles away in Lincoln, Nebraska. However, Woody doesn’t see that as a problem and is even prepared to walk through the American Midwest to collect his “prize”. Woody’s younger son, David, decides to indulge his ageing father’s whim even if he knows it’s not going to amount to anything. The film trails the journey of the father-son duo across the vast Midwest in shades of black, white and what is a distinct grey. Colours will not do for Payne, not for this labour of love.
As cinema, Nebraska follows a simple narrative, linear and cogent. As a comment on relations, on growing old and on dignity, and on how all of them are symbiotic, it has to be felt in the various creases and folds of its various uncles and aunts and moms and dads.
Without speaking much, Dern delivers a power-packed performance, as deserving of every award in the book as any could be. Much can be said of the quiet dignified way he carries his Woody, but words could end up working in an opposite way. In a similar vein, everyone else, particularly June Squibb and Will Forte, has internalised the characters they are in the film. An ideal world would perhaps see Nebraska claim everything from awards to commercial success. But, we do not live in an ideal world. And no one knows this more than Payne, who chooses to set it in the next best thing — a real world.
The thing is, this reality can bite; it can make you smart. But in a certain inexplicable seminal way, it can move mountains. An ageing man can dream of claiming a prize that he knows isn’t possibly there. His family, albeit annoyed at his irrational behest, can go along, even if they too know that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But, it is only in this real world, that the drive to the end of the rainbow — and drive they must, for in the US, they walk only in Manhattan — is the pot of gold they all get. On the way, they meet old people in a rural town where the only young people are either unemployed or criminals. The economy is, after all, what it is and the young have all moved on for greener pastures, a colour that Payne is obviously not interested in.
Therefore, he chooses grey, as much to avoid his film from becoming anything but a heartfelt endeavour as to make sure it does not become pastiche. The same cannot be said of many films in recent times.
In a nutshell, the Grant family in Nebraska ages a beautiful old. It is the kind of old that wilts, but just stops short of withering. Payne lets it slip in every frame of the film and the background blue-grass score amplifies it in a melodious strain.
And yes, lest we forget it, they all water the plant of life, we call family.