Five Reasons to Watch “Nebraska” and Start to Fear to Old Age

The cinematography is old school, but the plot is not. Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" is a black and white story about the family of Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate Grant (Kate Grant), and their children - sons Ross Grant (Bob Odenkirk) and David Grant (Will Forte). This cinema is a sharp blow to illusion and stiff dose of harsh reality, which the director communicates through the primitive ordinariness of the protagonists: the passion for money, composure, cynicism, and sarcasm. By the way, cynicism and sarcasm are part of the Payne’s trademark style, traits by which you can recognize that the film was made by the inevitable adventurer.

Why should you look for reasons to watch “Nebraska”? Well, first, if you are a fan of colourful images – and the film does move forward without graphics – then most likely these stories will not touch you. And, secondly, precisely because there is no colour, the stories touch the most, because the whole focus is centred on the problematic of the plot. Moreover, the problematic and the plot are a schematic outline of a sophisticated construct where everything is simple: here is your life, here is a time to live, and here are people who constantly repeat that you are an idiot with stupid illusions. And so on until old age. And continuing into old age.



Alexander Payne is a follower of old-fashioned movie-making. The idea is rather like “back to the origins, back to Adam and Eve”. That is why his heroes are painfully familiar and seem similar to us. Similarly, in the film “Descendants”, Alexander reveals the cheating of a terminally ill wife, as a trigger – a factor in the husband’s uncontrollable aggression. He decides to kill her lover. But everything is not simple. The upper class family does not allow him to descend to such depravity, and what to do then? Endure in agony?

Alexander Payne Photo Shutterstock Tinseltown
Alexander Payne Photo Shutterstock Tinseltown

And in his other films, like “Sideways”, that have brought fame as a subtle and original director in the United States, his ability to portray life with sarcasm has come in handy in virtually every picture. And “Nebraska” is no exception. Moreover, “Nebraska” is one of his best films, where we follow the original the trademark style – the life-loving attitude and the independent spirit.

The plot follows the path of Woody’s youngest son, David, and Woody himself – a closed, cynical, soulless older man – to Nebraska. There, in Nebraska, is the office of the publishing business, of which Woody has been an active subscriber, and has taken part in a million-dollar prize lottery. By mistake, he decides that he has won the money and makes the decision to journey to Nebraska to lay hands on his dream, by all means. His wife Kate and eldest son Ross in every possible way discourage him, ridiculing the idea and calling it all nonsense. David agrees to go with his father. On weekends, they stay in the town where Kate and Woody spent their childhood and youth, where many details of their past are revealed. David learns many family stories, which sometimes explain his father’s rigidity and callousness. The plot reveals the past, the present, relatives, their transformation and materialism. The storyline depicts Woody’s life through the eyes of David, and he begins to see his father not as a soulless older man, but as an offended, closed, wounded one with trauma and bitter life experience in his past. The film shows a real picture of life, which sometimes reaches the point of absurdity.


Illusions and belief in the past

Bruce Dern Photo Shutterstock Kathy Hutchins
Bruce Dern Photo Shutterstock Kathy Hutchins

Until the moment of arrival in Nebraska, the Grant family is a typical group of people who are, for some unknown reason, tired of life, and who turn out to be relatives. The youngest son is not as successful as the older one, he is divorced, without a promising job. The parents quarrel constantly, which makes the boys feel depressed. The impression that life has turned into a bland black-and-white film appears when David and Woody return to their roots. People have forgotten that there is time, and everything must change, and that except for stupid jokes and ridicule, nothing remains. Here David learns that Kate and Woody had the opportunity to start life from scratch, but separately. Nevertheless, everyone remembers their lives as stories that could have turned out differently. Previous romances, wrong choices, circumstances, bad habits – everyone is looking for an excuse for himself, why he did not take that step, almost half a century ago. How would life be now, if you could change everything?


Distance and lack of intimacy in the family

 When the Grant family comes to the cemetery, David learns a lot from the stories of relatives who died at different ages. Kate skilfully recalls a sister of Woody’s as a goner, who was 19 years old when she died in a car accident, and a poor baby brother, who died at 2 from scarlet fever. With the latter, Woody was especially close, and was in the same room at the time of his death. This truth shows the hidden corners of the wounded soul and the fact that Woody hides mental hurts behind a callous shell. A very vivid, emotional episode takes place at the cemetery, when David learns most of his father’s story there, and not from stories during family dinners, for instance. The film reveals the primitiveness of the distances in the Grant family. Woody’s father was the same. He had little contact with his children and worked a lot on his farm. When David tries to get closer to his father, he begins to understand the reason for the coldness in their relationship. That gradually changes him.


Regret and despair

One million dollars is an abstract concept in our illusions, something we want, the most valuable thing that can exist in life. And for this, we set off on a long journey. But also, Alexander Payne shows a million dollars as an absurd illusion, a lifeline. It seems to us that we can live better if we achieve distant goals. But all that happens is a circle through the past. Memories and feelings that have long ceased to exist, but pull us down. So Woody dreams of buying a new van for a million so that it can just be nearby, in the garage. After all, he has lost his driver licence and can’t drive. But the dream of getting a van is one of the biggest motivations for going after the ghostly million. Despair revives a chain of events to trigger living life new, as always dreamed of.


Life, stagnation, and routine

The view of highway 83 running through Nebraska
The view of highway 83 running through Nebraska

It’s more about relatives and friends in Nebraska than it is about the main characters. The worst thing in life is probably to live it as something trivial instead of living an adventure. In multiple episodes, the film shows how old friends and relatives live, interrupting each other and going from joke to joke in boring conversations, it becomes scary to imagine finishing that way. After all, they are all mired in a status quo, not noticing how they are stuck in gossip and unconscious time. Which is very frightening, because it is impossible to track the moment when the fuse burns out and life goes on according to the compelling scheme of everyday routine.


Breaking free from social prejudices for the sake of love

And continuing to the previous point, the only way to break out of the old circle is to give a damn about preconceptions and seek out what you want. For example, to be with your father and spend a couple of days with him in his dreams, to remember this time and never miss what you wanted. About the fact that Woody, in his childhood, did not show his feelings and did not manage to break out when life gave him a chance. Which David did. He didn’t care how his father lived, what they said about him. It became important what he felt, for which, in fact, he had travelled all the way.

In general, the plot lacks dynamics. There will be no sharp turns and intrigues. And there will be truth about life, which is sometimes steeper than any turn. And the fact that the film itself was filmed in black and white removes distractions and focuses on truths – feelings, emotions, experiences.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney

More reviews from the author:

Perspectives to Note in “The Witch: a New-England Folktale”


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