More often than not, the chase is more meaningful than the target. Because the chase keeps throwing up new questions and meanings. It has the capacity to frustrate and tire you and, at times, inflate the importance of the target. On the other hand, the target can promise solace but not necessarily continuous challenge. In Payne’s latest, Nebraska, Woody, a septuagenarian, is also fixated on a similar chase. He’s convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a lottery. You wonder what does Woody – who’s afflicted with a failing memory and is perennially confused – intend to do with a million dollars at this age? His wife, Kate (June Squibb), asks him this question later in the movie. Woody is not short of an answer, though: “I want to buy a truck and a compressor.” Woody’s reply has the answer we had been waiting for: He’s not looking for a million dollars; he’s searching for a purpose in his life, something to hold on to.
It’s pretty evident that Woody has not won any lottery. It’s one of the many scams that find the disconsolate and the lonely. But everyone knows this except Woody. He’s deluded enough to not know any better. What also doesn’t help is the fact that the members of the Grant household, consisting of Grant’s two sons and his wife, have drifted away from each other. Kate complains of being ignored; Woody’s eldest son, Ross, feels that his father never cared for his family; Dave tries in vain to explain to his father that he hasn’t won any lottery. And finally, Woody – what does he feel? We aren’t sure because he hardly remembers anything of the past. He’s just floating in the present. A forgotten past, an unsure present, and a rosy future built on the delusions of the now can hardly have anything in common.
Dave and Woody set on a road trip to Lincoln (Nebraska) to get their ‘million dollars’. On their way to Lincoln, they stop by Hawthorne, a town Woody grew up in. The news of Woody having won a million dollars has become the talk of the town. He meets old friends, distant acquaintances, family members who are not very familiar now, and they all seem happy for him. But their boredom is palpable – nothing much happens in this town. Just like, Woody, the denizens of Hawthorne are wedded to their routines. The only difference is Woody has literally drifted away, while the people of Hawthorne want to. Payne depicts this stagnancy quite effectively: In scenes where Woody is sitting beside his family members or friends, people hardly say a word. The awkward silence is often broken by an external source of sound – a Television set – or a conversation that strives too hard to find any common ground.
Nebraska’s Woody is not an easy man to like. He’s a man, who has mostly shied away from his responsibilities; he’s neither considerate nor particularly kind, and as we get to know later, he’s not always done the right things. It’s quite difficult to strike up a coherent conversation with him. And yet, the sadness in his life is undeniable. It’s an important question that needs to be asked – how much of our understanding of someone’s sadness is linked to how we see them as a person? Is the sadness of a morally strict man more profound as compared to the sadness of someone who’s mostly flawed? We understand during the course of the movie that Woody is consistently unreasonable. But as the film opens to a clueless Woody dawdling on the road, amidst heavy traffic, you feel protective about the guy. We are introduced to his cluelessness first, his history later. Had we been told how flawed Woody is, would we have reacted to his condition in the same way the way we did without knowing his history? Payne smoothens these uncomfortable questions by getting Woody to finally talk. One of the reasons Woody is after that one million because he wants to leave something for his kids. It makes us warm up to Woody a little more, but I don’t think that stroke — of smoothening the edge — was required. In many scenes, the film derived its power from the conflicting emotions we had towards Woody and his predicament. The aforementioned scene answers some of our questions, which the film could have tiptoed around because in that case we could have made our own answers. Everyone’s a hero in their own stories and they are invariably right.
As darkly funny Nebraska is, you can sometimes see Payne using certain devices to achieve the desired effect. To begin with, its peripheral characters are merely used as props to infuse humour in the film’s world, which is mainly bleak. For instance, Dave’s cousins quickly settle into a pattern where they mostly crack puerile jokes about Dave’s driving abilities. The jokes are funny — and work — for the most part, but when the peripheral characters don’t exist for themselves but for a particular tone the movie is after, they come across as caricatures. The dark humour in itself works well for the film and it highlights the absurdity of the urban mundaneness, but it comes from a place that’s largely unidimensional. Just like Woody’s confession, the humourous side characters comes across as too easy, too convenient. Contrast that with the banter between Woody and Dave, or for that matter between Woody and Kate. Those scenes don’t seem contrived, but are in fact enjoyable because we have lived with these characters, we have seen them respond to different situations. Sure, the side characters don’t have these luxuries but they can do better than being stand-ins.
But Nebraska’s most impressive achievement is perhaps its attempt to define the relationship between the past and the present. Should the mistakes of the past be remembered in the present? What’s more important: Insisting on a closure or making the best to do with whatever you have? Different characters respond to these questions differently. Woody’s elder son, Ross, has still not got over the fact that his father was responsible for his scarred childhood. And although he’s present with his family when they need him, you know that he’s not really there. That given a chance, he will slink away, and will not be willing to walk the extra mile. Similarly, the film makes us see what made Kate put up with Woody, when he hardly has any redeemable qualities. And it’s through Kate’s answer that we see a hitherto unknown facet of Woody — a kind, even gentle Woody, who could “never say no to anyone”. Woody might have been a different Woody with Kate, when he was young, when things might not have been this bad. Just like Woody, Kate has an answer as well. But it’s Dave who confronts most of the questions directed towards him. He finally sees his father beyond who he was, what he’s become, and what he will possibly be. He lives with his father in the now, constantly adapting to his whims. And he notices there’s much to be gained from small, isolated moments. Woody, on the other hand, hasn’t reached anywhere. He can’t. Perhaps that’s the way both Dave and Woody prefer it to be. When Woody visits the marketing agency, he’s informed that he hasn’t won the lottery. Would he like a gift in return — a hat? Woody hardly reacts and accepts the hat. He sits inside the car’s front seat, tilts his head to the window, and we can read what’s written on the hat: “Prize Winner”. Why would you want to live in the present when you have convinced yourself that your future is beautiful? And that you will get there someday.