Long overshadowed by Sideways, we’re giving this understated dramedy its due for depicting Midwest with the specificity Hollywood rarely gives it.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is as unassuming as the regular Midwestern folk it depicts. Even though this small, quiet, black-and-white comedy was flooded with nominations during the 2013 awards season it won almost none of them. Ten years on, it remains overshadowed by Payne’s more popular works like Sideways and Election. But this odd little dramedy is not only one of Payne’s finest films to date, it’s also his one true love letter to his home state of Nebraska and the Midwest itself.
Elderly alcoholic Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has fallen for a Publisher’s Clearinghouse–style scam and is convinced he’s won a million dollars. Determined to collect the cash in person, son David (Will Forte) ignores his mother and brother’s pleas and agrees to drive him all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska. On the way, the pair get waylaid in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, giving David a glimpse of not just who his father is, but how a place and the people in it shaped him.
Payne marries the story of a son desperate to connect with his father with the scenery around it. The wide open expanses, like Woody’s gruff exterior and seemingly tight-lipped nature, can register as emptiness, the very reason for the phrase “flyover country.” They’re prescribed a blankness that the rest of the country isn’t, a place where emotion could live if only anything of interest existed there. But Payne not only sees the beauty of the plains and the myriad emotions they (and Woody) can hold, he understands intimately how difficult they can be to see if you’re not looking and how easily they’re dismissed.
A Nebraska native himself, Payne has stayed close to his roots for his entire career (five of his seven films are set there), but only Nebraska is about digging into the specificity of place so often denied the Midwest. As critic Robert Daniels said in a recent thread on X, there’s a “gaping hole” in Hollywood when it comes to depicting the region and a blind spot “that never understands how much the weirdness, spunk, and passive aggressiveness of Midwesterners really varies.”
This is so clearly what Nebraska is addressing and in doing so puts that specific flavor of Midwestern dysfunction so rarely seen on Hollywood screens. You won’t find the screaming matches or shattered plates of Moonstruck, Magnolia, or even The Bear’s infamous holiday dinner scene. In Nebraska, it’s all about showcasing the power of silence.
For many Midwesterners and certainly for the Grant family, silence isn’t about keeping secrets, because a secret is withheld with intent. Secrets purposefully bury the truth, making the secret-keeper is a sentry to a vault. But Woody Grant and just about everyone in Hawthorne is an open book… if you ask the exact right questions, that is.
It’s a fact that’s evident from the film’s opening scene. Woody walks alone down the shoulder of a highway, a bit disheveled and clearly out of place when a cop pulls over and asks him where he’s going. Woody points forward down the road. The cop then asks where he came from and Woody silently turns and points behind him. In his mind, the question is asked and answered. Whether that’s a good enough answer for the cop is his problem. And this is how Woody approaches more or less everything in his life. He’s not interested in hiding the truth and at some points even seems incapable of doing so. But he’ll never say more than what he believes is absolutely necessary.
This is what makes the silence in Nebraska so intrinsically Midwestern. It’s the polite refusal to talk about yourself too much and the ability to bring up just about anything as if it’s an interesting nugget for conversation.
In Nebraska, it’s all about showcasing the power of silence.
When Woody and Grant meet up at Aunt Martha’s house in Hawthorne, her son Cole’s recent stint in jail for rape is casually brought up as if it’s not even really family gossip, but something as mundane as the weather. No details are given, no follow up questions are asked. His crime isn’t a dark family secret, its truth is admitted immediately.
Born and raised in Illinois myself the scene felt familiar. It’s how I learned most of the more interesting facts about my family. Not through storytelling or a secret dramatically revealed, but though an offhand comment in the kitchen at some family party. And while of course these experiences are far from solely Midwestern in their origin, there is something about them that feels like they belong with my Midwest roots.
It’s the lack of showiness. The matter-of-factness. The politeness. And the lack of followup details because what’s rude isn’t the sharing of the information, what’s rude is talking too much, taking up too much space with your story. It’s directness presented in a space where you’re raised not to ask for more information locking you in an endless cycle that can never actually get you all the way to where you want to be.
Woody’s matter-of-factness does hide something, though, and that’s his fundamental belief that people, even his own children, couldn’t possibly want more detail than what he’s providing. This is also David’s biggest hurdle in coming to understand his father. It’s clear that his dad isn’t going to break down into a true heart-to-heart with him, but over the course of their road trip he learns not only what questions to ask, but how to make sense of his dad’s answers. He also learns who to ask what he most wants to know.
The more David learns about his dad and the more he learns how to interpret his dad’s responses and silence, the easier it becomes for him to do one of the hardest things any child can do. He learns to accept not only the terrible ways his father failed him or even the fact that he loves his father anyway, but that he cannot change him. He will never get the answers he truly wants from him because he’s not capable of giving them. Woody isn’t hiding anything from his son. He just doesn’t know how to say what he thinks or feels in any sort of detailed way. All David can do is make peace with it and look for ways to communicate on whatever level his father can actually accept.
Payne can’t make the country love his home state or the great plains the way he does. But through Nebraska he can try to reach us on our level. To those of us from the area, he’s speaking a language we were born knowing, putting snapshots from our own living rooms on screen and making us feel seen in a way we almost never are. To everyone else, it’s an invitation look deeper than what you can see from a window as you’re speeding down the interstate or literally flying overhead. Nebraska asks you to stop and stay a while, to look more closely at the place and faces in it in the hopes that you’ll finally see a bit of yourself and remind you not to fly over it.