Bruce Dern’s default countenance is that of a dour man. In “Nebraska,” he plays the part of an exceedingly dour man - one who is also bitter, withdrawn, resigned, stubborn, taciturn, partially demented, alcoholic and very difficult. The plot of the movie hinges on Woody Grant’s determination to get to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to cash in on a Publisher’s Weekly type flyer promising that he could be a winner of one million dollars - the last opportunity in his collapsed life to regain some pride in himself and some measure of autonomy. Though we can believe that this character might set his clouded mind to undertake this fool’s journey from Montana to Nebraska, it’s harder to believe that his younger son, David, would decide to drive him there. There has been virtually no relationship between Woody and his sons throughout their lives and we discover, as David does, that before he was born, his father was involved with another woman and contemplating divorce from his wife. Yet, despite a serious accident and other difficulties that his father gets into en route, David is determined to keep going in order to satisfy the old man’s demands.
Along the way, we meet a gallery of caricatures: the shrewish wife whose foul mouth and self-referential take on life color all her perceptions; the loutish, layabout cousins who greedily steal the flyer before discarding it as worthless; the rest of Woody’s stonefaced brothers representing the endpoint of pioneer grit; the menacing former partner who tries to extort the promise of a cash settlement once Woody collects his million - all these are cardboard stick figures who exist for cheap comic relief or for generic observations of human nature. There are also the neighbors who wish Woody well and they briefly represent the decency that still exists in a changing America.
The son with the heart of gold and the patience of a saint remains unexplored; we never understand why this nice looking young man was living with such a homely woman for several years. Though it’s easy to figure out what his fear of marriage is about, it doesn’t explain why he couldn’t find someone more equally matched to his attractiveness quotient. “Nebraska” is really about the journey of this son from his vague insecurity and lack of purpose to his re-discovery of some good old-fashioned virtues - defending yourself and your kinfolk, understanding the satisfaction one gains by restoring the dignity of a father who had become an empty shell. David’s driving his father to Lincoln is an altruistic deed for which no public or private acclaim will be given; his mother and brother are opposed to the idea and see the clear solution as putting the old man in a nursing home. To make up for his father’s disappointment at not winning a million dollars, David decides to trade in his car and buy his father the truck he desperately wanted, even though he’s not allowed to drive. The Rocky moment at the end does temporarily restore Woody’s self-esteem and that moment for both of them was worth all of David’s travails.
It’s doubtful that this trip will change Woody’s life in any real way. He will have a truck to look at and a new compressor but he will continue to be a near-catatonic man who stopped caring about his own life and relationships early on and kept hardening his inwardness along with his arteries. It’s David who has the possibility of change and whatever hope exists in the movie by the end is directed towards him. He has summoned the courage to punch the extortionist in the face, he has discovered his capacity for compassion and humanity which inform his moral center, he has performed a noble act for which no thanks were given, save his own realization that he delivered grace to a man who had none.
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