Monday Movie Review #3: Nebraska

For this Monday Movie Review, I’m talking about Alexander Payne’s latest film Nebraska.

And I know it’s not in theaters anymore. But since I’ve already seen both movies showing at my local movie theater, I supported the local RedBox and came out on top with this selection. But don’t worry: I’ll be back at the theater and my regular schedule next week with a review of Divergent.

Going Into It: Really? Black and White? Whatevs, Mr. Payne

Yes, I was skeptical about the whole “black and white” thing. And I initially counted that as a deterring factor because I thought it was just unnecessary design fluff that contributed nothing to the value of the story. But then I came across an interview with one of the producers, and he proffered that this stylistic choice came to fruition because he believed it best captured the “iconic” feel that he was looking for.

That’s a bold statement, and I discounted it as haughty and almost never watched the film – until I started hearing all the accolades and Oscar buzz floating around this production. Praises for the director, the cast, the design, and the film on the whole were coming in from every direction on the news and on the web. Then I checked out the premise (no spoiler): a man who thinks he’s won a million dollars sucks his son into driving all the way to Nebraska to collect his winnings.

And to me, that’s a premise with powerful potential because it ultimately involves a paradigm shift from believing pretense to believing the truth – essentially, a “coming-of-age” of sorts.

Thankfully, my expectations were met and surpassed.

Blood Runs Thicker in Black and White

The predominant theme is that of blood running thicker than water. Throughout the film, scenario after scenario features family coming through for the better. In one example, Woody (Bruce Dern) tells his sons David and Ross (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, respectively) that some time ago, his old business partner had stolen an air compressor from him. The brothers take it to heart, and when the opportunity presents itself, they offer to “retrieve” it – one of the many comedic moments in the film.

And this gem…

Hey, Dad! I found your teeth!

Hey, Dad! I found your teeth!

This theme is more aptly represented as the story progresses, and without giving too much away, you’ll end up glad that Woody and David make it all the way to Nebraska despite the path they had to take to get there. It’s a path that includes navigating Woody’s long-suffering but often outspokenly martyred wife Kate (June Squibb) as well as cousins and nephews that all try to get a piece of Woody’s prize-money as reparations for helping him out earlier in life.

The Dysfunctional Family…and the Hope It Offers

The only other Payne film I’ve actually wholly seen is The Descendants from 2011 with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, and the dysfunctional family theme is just as prevalent there as it is here. Because of this, I’m starting to believe that this is Payne’s niche as a cinematic storyteller – the dysfunctional family that still holds together. Then again, it’s the most convicting American storytelling convention.

Because the dysfunctional family is relatable. All families have something about them that make them unique – and more often than not, that unique factor is something that doesn’t work right within them. It could be a mentally debilitated (and thus overly naive) father. Or it could be a cavalcade of distant relative that don’t support you because of your past choices. Everyone knows someone in their family like this, which makes connecting to this film all the more easier and more accessible.

MMR - Nebraska 2

Hey…you found my teeth.

And this connection is beneficial because it creates the foundation for change. No one wants to stay in a dysfunctional family because dysfunction leads to purposelessness and ultimately hopelessness – something that Woody experiences in high doses throughout the scenes leading up to the climax. But, as I’ve already alluded to, that changes in the resolution.

Jesus in Nebraska: The Heart of a Servant

This is essentially where I see Christ in this film, though. I see patience in action with a disillusioned old fool whose only hope resides in a phony sweepstakes letter. And I see the extent of loving-kindness to which a son goes in order to provide the platform his father needs to “grow” in truthful reality. I see a story in which someone makes something change because of servant-like submission.

How many times are we given the opportunity to be patient with a friend or loved one’s misguidance? How many times are we given the opportunity to serve someone in truth and gentleness? How many times do we blow those opportunities? Let this film serve as a reminder to everyone that he who is a servant will be considered the greatest:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-26)


P.S. I gotta give a shout-out to the character Bernie Bowen. He’s genuinely happy for Woody no matter what, and when you see Bernie, you feel it, too.

P.S.S. This film is rated R because of “some language” – that is, going along with dysfunctional family convention, a few grungy F-words are spoken. So obviously, if that’s a problem or stumbling block for anyone, stay away. And although I didn’t feel it was that much of a hassle overlooking it, I know some will, so here’s that warning.

About Brenden Taylor

Brenden is an educational assistant and tutor by day and a theatre practitioner by night. He has his M.A. in Theatre Arts and is always looking for a good way to use stories to soften peoples' hearts. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @LeviTheBeliever.
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