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 Image courtesy of the Mennonite Community Photography Collection.

I have been to the movie theater exactly twice on my own. I might end up doing it more often considering both experiences were as cathartic as they were enjoyable. To be fair, both of the films I saw were dynamite, and perhaps better when viewed alone. I also knew very little about either of the films beforehand which added to the respective experiences. If I go into the theater having heard I’m about to see the “film of the year,” it is unlikely it could live up to that hype, and thus is often subject to being relatively disappointing. Incidentally, that is exactly what happened to me with the recently released Her. I promise, then, to give very little away in encouraging you to see Nebraska. 

The first film that I saw solo was “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.” Beasts was a critically-acclaimed film that still flew under some people’s radar. That is to say, it seems like half of the people I ask about Beasts have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ve also met some who thought it was an average film, which blows my mind, but I suspect that they may have suffered from the aforementioned over-hyping. I saw the film on a whim, knowing very little about it. My mother was scheduled to have brain surgery to hopefully extricate her brain cancer in a couple days. I was in a bad head space. I went to the theater in order to clear my head. It turns out — spoiler alert — that Beasts is pretty much a story about losing a parent. I cried until it hurt. There was a point when I actually thought to myself, “If I don’t stop crying I am going to stop breathing.” My abs hurt for a week. It was a phenomenal film, and it blindsided me in an educational way — how often to you go to the theater having no idea what to expect, and doesn’t that make the overall experience that much better? A lesson learned.

So when I went to see Nebraska yesterday, on my lonesome, I was in a familiar place. I had heard the film was great without having seen the trailer and I elected to keep it that way. I had read a brief plot description, and it spoiled almost nothing: an aging old-man and his son take a drive from Billings, MT to Lincoln, NE in order to claim a million dollar prize that does not exist. As my mother continues to deal with brain cancer, it is slowly taking away her memory and ability to state thoughts clearly. So going to a movie in which a son deals head-on with his aging parent’s delusions seemed like it would provide catharsis anew. I figured I’d be walking out of that theater with tears flowing down my cheeks, especially considering that everything I’d heard was that the movie is “depressing,” something I now can tell you I adamantly disagree with. Nebraska is uplifting (though I’m not promising you won’t cry).

From the first shot, you are pulled in. A man walks up the shoulder of a road. The traffic of Billings, MT passes him, and passes behind him. You don’t know where he is headed. Neither does the cop who pulls over to find out who he is and where he is going. The cop asks him where he is coming from. The man points behind him. The cop asks him where he is going. The man points ahead. The black and white shot — the entire movie is shot in black and white, something you will come to appreciate by the end — only lasts for about thirty seconds before full credits roll on a black screen.

That man is the main character, Woody (Bruce Dern). Woody is the old man who thinks he has won a million dollars. The sheet of paper that he believes to be his winning ticket is essentially a piece of spam mail that is fishing for his favorite book titles (or something of that nature). It tells him to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to pick up his prize. His son, David (a bleak but likable Will Forte), decides it is his duty to give his father what he wants: a ride to Lincoln. Of course, David is quite sure that Woody has not won a million dollars, but views the escapade as a potential bonding experience (spoiler alert: it just may be).

All of the scenes that include Dern are a poignant glimpse into what it means to be elderly and utterly disinterested in complying with social norms. Despite being in nearly every scene, he probably doesn’t say more than two hundred words over the course of the film, mixing “I suppose”s in with “I don’t remember”s the majority of the time. Director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt) does most of the speaking for Woody, offering myriad shots of the old, stubborn man that need no dialogue. The man is searching for something more than money.

The old people interactions in this movie will make you laugh. From Woody’s one-sided “conversations” with his motor-mouth wife Kate (a perfectly-cast June Squibb), to the scene in which ten older men gather around a television to watch a Lions and Bears game, the authenticity of these moments will linger in your head long after you’ve left the theater. There is nothing extraordinary about any of the characters at first glance — neigh, the point seems to be that they are all overwhelmingly plain and down-on-their-luck — but you begin to realize that everybody in the film is a character in the most idealized sense.

The overall pace of the movie is slow. Shots linger, as does silence. It takes them far too long to travel from Billings to Lincoln, something David’s cousins — who claim to have driven from Dallas to Hawthorn, NE in 8 hours, a feat that would require averaging well over 100 mph — get a real kick out of. But I can honestly say I have never been more fixated on a film (I only checked my cell phone once which is both indicative of that fixation and indicative of a problem that I have). The two hours fly by thanks to Payne’s unrelenting devotion to bringing to life the most inconsequential of interactions. A glance in the car. An exchange about a Chevy Impala — no, a Buick LeSabre — that stopped running years ago. An old person joke about dentures. An elderly Catholic woman flashing her privates at a gravestone and exclaiming, “See what you missed out on?”.

All of these little things will bring you on a two-hour ride to the heart of Nebraska.