Note: On March 29th, some Mountain Shadow members gathered for the first “Encore Evenings,” where we enjoyed seeing once again a great commercial film from this last year and having some in-depth discussion. This commentary, written by Mountain Shadow director, John Bennison, accompanied the event.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay written by Bob Nelson
Bruce Dern, role: Woody Grant
June Squibb, role: Kate Grant
Will Forte, role: David Grant, younger son
Bob Odenkirk, role: Ross Grant, older son
Stacy Keach, role: Ed Pegram
An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million-dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize he thinks he’s won.
Commentary by John Bennison
But when you get back on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your long lost friend.
It’s mighty clear, without a doubt,
That nobody knows you when you're down and out.
Songwriter Jimmy Cox, 1923
Take the mythic hero’s journey and turn it upside down. Then give it a slight twist, so it's all a little out of whack, and you have Alexander Payne’s stark portrayal of a father-son sojourn across the bleak landscape of that Midwest Americana that time forgot.
One might react to the film in any number of ways. One might describe it as funny, grim, crude, depressing, sobering, and the characters – or caricatures – as painfully honest and real. But if you’ve ever played the part of a father or a son in an estranged or awkward relationship you might relate. And against this backdrop shot in black and white there are myriad shades of gray that make up the three-dimensional characters of this story; including some of the shadows of their former selves.
With the face and demeanor that resembles a befuddled porcupine who’s perpetually peeved at having been abruptly awakened from his nap, Woody Grant seems to be sinking deeper by the hour into a fog of delusional senility.
Meanwhile, Ross the older son is still too caught up in his own career aspirations and lingering resentments towards the old man to put up with him. And Kate, that harping shrew of a wife, is portrayed 98% of the time as just stingy and mean; refusing to indulge her stubborn husband who’s obviously lost it. Fortunately, as the tale unravels, Ross and Kate still have the remaining 2% of family blood and affection to offer, as well.
Only David, the younger son, is willing to put what is otherwise a fairly empty and meaningless life on hold for a few days, and head off cross country from Billings to Lincoln on what will surely be an adventure that – as far as he figures -- might just as well be called the Last Chance.
The weekend layover in Woody and Kate’s old hometown of Hawthorne turns out to be an unsentimental trip down memory lane; but where all the inhabitants still manage to represent everything that’s both good and bad in human beings. When old friends and shirttail relatives easily delude themselves into thinking Woody really has really struck it rich, both greed and genuine good wishes rise quickly to the surface. And in the dusty archives of the local newspaper office, son David is given just a glimpse of his father’s former self; and the allowances wiser persons are able to make in withholding judgment of others.
Woody’s sweepstakes letter is an empty promise, of course. When he and his long-suffering son finally get to Lincoln, and Woody finds out he hasn’t won a million bucks, he shrugs off yet one more disappointment to his disappointing life. He turns around to leave and return home empty handed, until he’s offered a cheap cap with the imprinted words “Prize Winner” as a consolation prize.
When son David asks the Magazine company secretary if they get a lot old people who think they’ve actually won something when they receive come-on sweepstakes solicitations in their mailboxes, she replies, “Yeah, it happens.”
David explains, “My Dad tends to believe what people tell him.” To which she simply replies, “Oh, yeah, that’s too bad.” Yep. That’s too bad.
Those three little words could sum up a lot of what might easily be taken as just a grim little saga of broken down lives and countless little Midwest towns that all look like empty shells of their former selves. Earlier, when David and his brother Ross take their folks to revisit the abandoned farmhouse where their Dad grew up, they wander through the dilapidated, empty old house. “Looks about the same,” Woody says. “Just a bunch of old wood and weeds.”
As N.Y.Times critic, A.O. Scott, put it, “Their journey stalls in Hawthorne, where “Nebraska” blossoms into a study of provincial American absurdity … The chilling implication of this film is not that the old values of hard work, family and community have fallen away, but that they were never really there to begin with. Yet somehow the feeling that lingers after the last shot is the opposite of despair.”
Besides David, there are only a few lovable or truly redeeming characters around the edges of this story. Everyone else is just doing what humans do. One has to sit through nearly two hours of this painfully human and slightly out-of-kilter ordeal to find the real buried treasure.
David has sold his old car to buy a newer used pick-up truck that still has a shine to it. He’s put his father’s name on the vehicle’s title, and bought him a new air compressor to replace the one a lousy friend never returned decades earlier. With his winner’s cap and shiny used truck, Woody drives back through Hawthorne to have the last laugh. “So long,” he shouts, as he waves out the window, and drives off down the road for good.
In the end, David’s longing to connect with the father he never really knew – a hunger that has been as unrelenting on this road trip as his father’s determination to reach his illusory pot of gold – is rewarded with the gift one brief side glance of grateful acknowledgment and the faintest smile from Woody.
For David, and his old man, you’re left wanting to believe it’s enough. jb