‘Nebraska’ urges us to honor our connections

“Nebraska” (2013). Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan. Director: Alexander Payne. Screenplay: Bob Nelson. Web site. Trailer.

It’s easy to take our world for granted. In fact, sometimes we can even lose sight of what connects us to it and everything that makes up its being. But what do we lose when we embrace such an aloof, disconnected outlook? Arguably, it could be far more than we realize, and getting it back may be more difficult than we can imagine. Such is the challenge put to the protagonists in the offbeat new comedy-drama, “Nebraska.”

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a man on a mission. The retired septuagenarian auto mechanic is determined, one way or another, to make his way from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. The reason? Thanks to a promotional mailing he received, Woody’s convinced he’s won $1 million in a sweepstakes sponsored by a magazine sales company. And, since he doesn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service to promptly deliver his reply form, he’s resolved to collect his money in person – even if it means walking all the way there. Woody believes there’s too much at stake to leave matters to chance.

Woody’s family, meanwhile, is justifiably concerned. His wife, Kate (June Squibb), and his sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), worry about their stubborn relation. Woody’s alcoholic tendencies, coupled with intermittent bouts of dementia and periodic mobility issues, make him a disaster waiting to happen when left to his own devices. And then there’s Woody’s naïveté about the sweepstakes; Kate and the boys believe Woody will be crushed when he discovers the truth about its misleading nature. But, no matter what they do to keep him in line, there’s simply no deterring Woody from fulfilling his quest.

Woody is so headstrong about his objective that he’s even made plans for how to spend the money. He wants to buy a new pickup truck (even though he no longer drives) and a new auto body painting compressor to replace the one that he believes his former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), stole from him years before (even though they’re no longer in business together). And, even though Kate, David and Ross fail to understand the importance of these seemingly trivial material possessions, they nevertheless matter to Woody, and he’s hell-bent on getting them, regardless of what it takes.

To assuage the old man’s feelings (and to keep him from hurting himself), David agrees to drive Woody from Billings to Lincoln. But, given Woody’s obstinate behavior, their journey together proves to be almost as challenging as if the family had let him go on his own. David hopes that will change, however, when he and Woody make a stopover in dad’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska. David crosses his fingers that the once-familiar surroundings and a reunion with long-unseen relatives will put his father’s mind at ease, quelling thoughts about his foolish obsession. But, when they arrive at Woody’s old haunts, nothing could be further from the truth.

When word of Woody’s alleged fortune spreads throughout Hawthorne, anyone who ever knew him tries to cash in on his supposed new wealth. David is appalled that everyone (including family members) would try to unabashedly take advantage of a feeble, mentally challenged old man. And, for his part, Woody is so clueless about the intentions of the circling vultures that he even expresses an interest in helping them out. With matters quickly spinning out of control, the inevitable disappointment awaiting Woody and David in Lincoln suddenly seems far preferable by comparison.

It’s painfully obvious that Woody is a disconnected soul. He’s quite comfortable being a recluse, frequently venturing off on his own, routinely losing himself in drink and often tuning out others, even when they’re in his presence. Some might easily think such gestures make him the embodiment of antisocial behavior.

But, given the quality of his life, it’s also understandable why Woody might act as he does. He grew up in a desolate small town where there was precious little to do, surrounded by self-serving, equally disinterested family members. He fought in Korea at a tender young age, an experience that he never speaks of but that obviously had quite a profound effect on him. He partnered with an untrustworthy businessman, one who wouldn’t hesitate to shaft Woody at every turn. And, to top it all off, he married a shrew of a wife who thinks mostly of herself, perpetually henpecking her husband into submission – and withdrawal.

Considering these circumstances, it’s easy to see why Woody would seek to unplug from life. Yet, despite the often-untethered nature of his existence, connection is really what he craves most. On some level, he knows, as all conscious creators do, that there’s an inherent connectedness that binds all aspects of reality. It’s something that he wants but that’s noticeably absent from his reality. In fact, it’s so far removed that he doesn’t even know how to look for it anymore. He’s incapable of birthing suitable beliefs to make such a lofty goal possible, so he settles for pale substitutes, like drinking, an illusory financial windfall and the prospect of owning a new pickup truck.

What’s perhaps even more troubling, however, is that David sees himself heading down a similar path. He’s still young and vital, but he’s had connection issues of his own. Having once battled the bottle as well, he now finds himself living a solitary existence and stuck in a dead-end job. He’s justifiably concerned that he may one day end up like Woody – someone who desires the same kind of meaningful connection that’s lacking in his old man’s life. In fact, it’s those very circumstances that prompt David to embark on the road trip to Lincoln. He’s hoping that the time spent with Woody will help to forge the kind of bonds – to one another and to life in general – that each of them so desperately seeks. And, with the formation of appropriate beliefs and some concerted action on their part, they just might be able to achieve it.

Still, given the foregoing, one probably can’t help but wonder why Woody and David would go to the extreme of creating such conspicuous disconnection as a means to manifest meaningful connection. Indeed, why go to all that needlessly contradictory trouble?

As strange as it may seem, sometimes materializing the absence of what we seek serves to fuel our passion for making our dreams happen. We so desperately wish to experience what’s missing that we’ll create the exact opposite of what we say we want to help us intently focus our beliefs in the direction of what we seek to manifest. One would hope after a lesson like this that it’s far simpler to just concentrate on what we do want, but sometimes we need the experience of taking the long way around to find the shortest path to realizing our aspirations.

To that end, “Nebraska” also inspires us to never give up on our dreams, no matter how simple or elaborate they may be. Having faith in the beliefs that underlie their materialization is crucial to see them realized, again, regardless of their scope or the means by which they’re made manifest. Sometimes it’s quite possible to see even the seemingly impossible come to fruition if we hold fast to the outcome, rather than the means by which it’s hatched, no matter what the objective is. By holding on to that idea, Woody and David just might see all of their hoped-for expectations come true.

None of this is meant to suggest that “Nebraska” is a dour, plodding exercise in endless despair and exasperating hand-wringing. It’s actually chock full of laugh-out-loud humor, as well as many heartfelt, touching moments, providing an effective mix of comedy and drama. Director Alexander Payne has stepped up his game considerably since his last outing, “The Descendents” (2011), a much-acclaimed though often-unsatisfying effort that pales compared to what he has achieved here. The picture’s exquisite black-and-white cinematography effectively captures the look and feel of the American heartland, recalling such Peter Bogdanovich films as “Paper Moon” (1973) and “The Last Picture Show” (1971). Its excellent script calls to mind the gentle humor and simple, homespun folksiness embodied in Coen Brothers offerings like “Fargo” (1996) and “Raising Arizona” (1987). And its superb performances by Dern, Keach and, especially, Squibb make this film a real treat to watch.

Despite its initial limited release, “Nebraska” is already garnering considerable awards season buzz. In fact, the film has already chalked up some impressive honors, earning notable accolades at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Dern’s performance captured the award for best actor, and the film was a Palme d’Or nominee, the Festival’s highest honor. Look for more such praise to be forthcoming as awards season progresses.

Connecting – or reconnecting – to life can prove to be one of our most rewarding experiences. But recognizing the absence of our connectedness and taking steps to restore it are essential if we ever hope to see this goal realized. One can only hope that we succeed at this before the clock runs out, while we still have the chance to appreciate all it has to offer – pickup trucks notwithstanding.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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