On the Lottery Trail: Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Devdutt Trivedi

Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska (2013)

In his acclaimed books on cinema The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze argues that the American cinema ‘constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization.’ Perhaps the most apt representative of this trajectory of American cinema today is Alexander Payne, who has gradually become the most quintessential Hollywood voice since his 2002 Jack Nicholson starrer About Schmidt.

The context of his new film Nebraska is old age and the effects of it. The protagonist of the film is Woody Grant – an old, eccentric, booze-addled man who wishes to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to fulfill his phantasy of winning a million dollars in a lottery. His son David, who has just terminated his two-year-old relationship with his girlfriend, agrees to take him there. On the way they meet old friends, an encounter that produces vivid memories of the older Grants – Woody and Kate and their young days.

These situations allow for a condition of potentiality for a road film with a unique method of stylization to emerge. The film is reminiscent of the way Werner Herzog dealt with the neurosis of dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to come up with a unique theatrical stylization; except that instead of dwarfs, Payne uses old people. One realizes that the characters are being unveiled as if they are young people who have become old. Payne wants the audience to reach out and feel his characters that are living the American dream, but at the same time are troubled with the awkward socialization the country forces onto them, especially with age. At the level of philosophizing then, the film does not go beyond being an amusing take on first world problems for the old. In this way it is in line with the frivolous concerns of the director’s equally engrossing The Descendants (2011).

The film takes a trick or two out of traditional Hollywood writing by centering the events on the catharsis of the central protagonist Woody so as to not allow the road film to wander. The lines are memorable and can match the best in Hollywood today, if not in its golden era. A memorable event is at the beginning of the film when David and Woody look for the old man’s dentures. When David finds his father’s dentures at the rail tracks, the latter denies that they are his. As David looks to get rid of them, Woody is irritated claiming that they were his dentures and that he should have them immediately.

At some point in this engrossing film, one realizes that the director does not question the genre limitations of the road film, as the car becomes the tool for deterritorialization and the wide shot of the car on the road induces the power of repetition within the image. The film is a great document of taverns, washrooms and hospitals in small town America all within the construct of storytelling. This writer would have been even more engrossed had there been a slight exaggeration, even fetishization of the documented spaces creating a unique glossary of all things American on pristine black and white.

American society in Nebraska consists of old men watching American football over the weekend and talking about Chevrolet Impalas, while the new generation tries to bring about (economic) change. In this sense the film is reminiscent of an Ozu pillow-shot, where the everyday and sublime meet through the cinematic image. Falling slightly short of the societal stylization of an Aki Kaurismaki film, the repetitious ‘feel good’ guitar music prevents a cinema of observation to emerge, for it consistently makes the scenario underline a convergence of ideas or a micro-climax of sorts that gives way to a very forced sense of order.


Leave a Reply