Fathers and the Failures of Masculinity in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Bob Nelson
Stars: Bruce DernWill ForteJune Squibb |See full cast and crew »

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas

It has been my observation of late that our culture has created an army of emotionally distant and disconnected men.  I have thought a lot recently about the older men who have shaped my view of masculinity during my childhood and adult life. These men ranged from the taciturn to the gregarious, but almost uniformly they rarely if ever showed any real emotion except anger. There were no tears of sadness after the loss of a parent, no words of love toward their loved ones after a graduation or soccer game. Looking back now, I don’t think this is an accident. Men, it seems, are taught at a very young age that men don’t show emotions. Emotions are the province of women.

It’s as if all these men somehow got the same script of masculinity early in their lives and have followed it to a tee. And now they follow the rules without any thought. If I asked some of these men what these rules were, I imagine it would sound something like this, “Rule 1) Anger is the only acceptable emotions for men. Rule 2) Any weakness is feminine. And being feminine is one of the worst things a man can become. ”

This sort of enslaved masculinity has seeped into my generation as well. So often what I observe is a whole generation of men so profoundly scared of themselves and their emotions. Hanging with the guys is a fun time because we make jabs about each other and have a few beers. But its rare that anything of import is discussed, even though all of us are feeling similar things. We’re all scared and unsure about our lives. We all want to be successful. We all want to love and be loved. But no one seems to know how to talk about these things in any real way. And so we’re trapped, like the generations before us, with all these emotions but with nowhere to put them. And forget talking to our significant others in a real way. It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s just that we don’t know how. And so it becomes easy to drown them out in whatever distraction you may desire whether its drinking, drugs, video games or playing poker.

Alexander Payne’s stark, quiet, sparse meditation “Nebraska” is about one of these types of stunted men. His name is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern.) He lives in Billings, Montana. He is an alcoholic and walks with a gait that seems to carry all his disappoint and anguish in each step. In the opening sequence of the film, he walks along a highway in a winter coat and hat. He is alone. It is unclear where he is going. The camera faces him and captures the old man in one continuous long take walking toward the screen. A police officer pulls up behind the old man and tries to ask him where he is going. The old man does not answer at first. He wants to be on his way. The police won’t let up though and eventually takes him into his car. It is a jarring image to open the movie. Payne sets the ground rules early on, telling the audience that this film will be about isolation and disconnection from people.

Woody, it seems, received a letter that he won a Publisher’s Clearing House-type sweepstakes worth a million dollars. Everyone around him knows its a scam, but Woody won’t believe it. He wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his prize. But no one will take him. So he decides to walk instead. Never very aware or lucid, Woody’s senility has only gotten worse. Woody has a wife Kate, (June Squibb), and two sons, David (Will Forte), and Ross (Bob Odenkirk, otherwise known as the great Saul Goodman). They are all tired of him. It seems that Woody wasn’t exactly a good husband or father either. He barely said anything and spent most of his nights getting drunk. It’s clear that he felt things but no one seems what those things were. No one, it seems, really knows Woody. Woody’s son, David, however, pities his father, even though they have never had a connection. He decides he will drive his father to Lincoln, Nebraska to get his prize. The road trip to Lincoln is where the bulk of Nebraska takes place.

Woody and David’s relationship is the central one of “Nebraska.” Bruce Dern has gotten a lot of press for his performance and rightly so but it is Will Forte who is the heart of “Nebraska.” Forte, best known for playing MacGruber on Saturday Night Live, plays David with a hollowed exasperation with a layer of genuine Midwest decency.  While his brother and mother mock their father, David feels pity for him and wants desperately to get to know the old man, who has always been emotionally distant, just a little bit before he passes on. It’s not a flashy performance, but it is a good one, made even more the surprising considering his comedy roots.

The black-and-white cinematography of Phedon Papamichael is stark, beautiful and fits right in with the movie’s themes. The sparse pillow shots of barren Nebraskan landscapes are not only lovely to look at but center the audience into isolated landscapes and people of the Midwest. And the wistful and contemplative fiddle score by Mark Orton is just perfect for the movie.

“Nebraska” gets so much right about the underlying repression in American culture. Behind the bromides and pleasantries, so much is not being said or acknowledged but swept under a rug like bread crumbs. There is a brilliant scene in the middle of “Nebraska” when Woody returns to his hometown and spends time with his many brothers and nephews while the women are off talking elsewhere. Payne shoots the multitude of men facing the camera as they all watch television together. Even though these men have not seen each other in years, they barely speak unless someone mentions a car or a football game. No one, it seems, knows how to say what’s really on their minds. Or maybe they’re all so emotionally numb at this point in their lives, they actually have nothing to say.

More than anything “Nebraska” is Alexander Payne’s chance to make peace with the place he grew up, Nebraska, and all that he loves and hates about it. Payne’s movies are always a deft balancing act that move from empathy to mockery of his characters sometimes in the same scene. Mostly it works very well in “Nebraska” but sometimes it just feels elitist and mean spirited when he mocks the same small-town Midwest folks he grew up with. But it’s clear that Payne feels nothing but empathy for Woody. I’m guessing like me, he has probably had his share of cold, unfeeling male caretakers whose acceptance and love he desired but never got.

Payne wants to shine a light on Woody’s life and show us its tragic elements. Despite being a white male, which is of course a class of privilege in this country, Woody is also trapped by this privilege. Like the men who raised me, Woody was never given a chance to have an emotional life of his own as he controlled by the rigid definitions of masculinity indoctrinated on to him as it is indoctrinated into us all. And without this true emotional life, he retreated into alcohol and anger.  But for one glorious moment at the end of “Nebraska,” Woody is alive. In a way, it’s Payne’s love letter to all fathers who suppressed their emotions for so long and never got to live with any joy. In a practical sense nothing changes as the film’s credits roll out. But there is also the feeling that nothing will ever be the same for this Woody and David.

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2 thoughts on “Fathers and the Failures of Masculinity in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Films of 2013, #10-6 | Magical Reelism

  2. Pingback: My Favorite Films of 2013, #5-1 | Magical Reelism

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