Money or Love? Which is the Real Prize?

NEBRASKA — What does a son do when he feels his dad doesn’t love him? Either silently withdraw or take the road trip of his life to just spend a little time together. Director Alexander Payne has done it brilliantly again. Nebraska isn’t the road trip we took in Sideways. It’s a father-son road trip, and a touchingly redemptive ride it is, from Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska with a stop in the fictional Hawthorne along the way. This beautiful, character-driven film, with a virtuoso performance by Bruce Dern as Woody Grant and a touching Will Forte as his son, David, asks a tough question. Can emotional restitution between a parent and child actually happen, even if it’s slow to come by and not quite what you expected?

Woody and David’s road trip affirmatively answers this question in one of the most implausibly believable premises a film could find: Woody Grant has won the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes! Or, so he thinks. Clutching his ticket to wealth – “You, Woody Grant, Have Won a Million Dollars!” – Woody doesn’t see the print too small for this stubbornly determined man to notice: “If you have the winning number.” How many of us haven’t been tempted to send in the response envelope for a try, even to buy a magazine just to improve our chances?

Well, Woody Grant is more than tempted. He’s convinced the million dollars is his and he will go to Omaha to collect his prize. When his wife, Kate, refuses to take him and calls him crazy (in her thoughtlessly harsh way), he takes off limping and lumbering down the road. He’ll walk to Nebraska on his own – lost in the land of half-realities, as many elderly people suffering dementia are.

David can’t disappoint him, even though his mom accuses him of “losing his marbles, too.” And he can’t bear to see his dad put in a nursing home, housed sadly away from his life and his dreams. Especially this dream – which eventually reveals a surprising motive under the stark Nebraska landscape and bleak black-and-white lives of the people Payne, without embellishment, portrays. Anyway, David’s life is on a road going nowhere, so what else does he have to do but save his father a walk to Omaha? His old girlfriend unsuccessfully tries to shake him up: “Let’s do something! Anything!” But, he can’t. Not until his obstinate father, out to claim his prize and (unbeknownst to him) re-claim his past, budges David out of his stagnation.

What causes this kind of stagnation? A childhood filled with disappointments and failed hopes for love. Neither Woody nor Kate is capable of showing it. Just as David endures his dad’s illogical plan, he’s come to expect nothing. It’s this resignation that keeps him at a standstill. Now, on their futile trip to retrieve Woody’s winnings, David searches for his dad’s lost, un-cemented dentures on train tracks in the middle of nowhere, shares a beer (even though he’s quit), and tries to talk to Woody about how you know for sure a woman is right. The conversation goes like this: “Why’d you marry, Mom?” “She wanted to.” “Do you ever regret it?” “All the time. So I drink? You would, too, if you were married to your mother.” Helpful? Not a bit. But, the real point of this unsuccessful conversation is David’s hunger for a connection that Woody’s taciturn melancholy has denied him his entire life.

Woody never did know how to be a dad. David’s real journey from Billings to Hawthorne to Omaha and back is to understand why. It all begins with the stolen air compressor. But something much more serious has been stolen from Woody in his childhood, worse than being shot down in the Korean War. War is traumatic. But, as a young child, Woody saw his brother die. And, his parents beat him: “I’d get whipped if they found me in here. Guess nobody’s going to whip me now?” He doesn’t really believe that.

No wonder he let’s everyone take advantage of him, like his corrupt ex-partner, Ed Pilgrim (who stole his air compressor). Now that everyone in Hawthorne thinks he’s a millionaire, including his greedy family, they try to get a piece of the action. Woody can’t stand up to them. Thankfully, the outrageous, outspoken, Kate does – in a moment of surprising tenderness for her husband: “Vultures usually don’t descend until someone’s dead … you can all just go fuck yourselves.”

Woody’s dementia makes it too late for serious change. But, if he’d ended up on my couch at a younger age, I’d help him understand that his self-denying need for approval is his fear of anger – first his parent’s wrath; now everyone else’s and his own. I’d gently help him feel his anger and build the confidence that he does indeed have a claim to what is rightfully his. I’d show him how he walls himself off because he’s convinced he’ll disappoint or lose the people he loves.

In the film, David finds just the right solution for Woody’s anxiety now: a brand new truck to make him feel like a million dollars and a new air compressor to replace the stolen one. When we see him proudly driving down the road, past all his greedy relatives and “friends”, we see what’s really been stolen from him and what David’s helped him re-claim: his self-respect.

David gets what he’s been looking for, too, when Woody tells him: “I always wanted a new truck … the rest of the money? For you boys, I wanted to leave you something.” Sometimes appearances, situations, and behavior are not what they seem. Especially when they’re interpreted through the lens of what we expect or don’t. Nebraska’s father-son road trip gives David a chance to look below the surface – to see that Woody’s insular iciness isn’t about him. It isn’t his failure to be enough. It isn’t for lack of love. Woody’s gruff withdrawal is his self-protection against not having love returned. Understanding this is David’s million-dollar prize. It was never, for him, about the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes at all.

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