Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.
Our Advisories(1-10): Violence 2; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Then Jesus* said, “There was a man who had two sons.”
How far will the love of a son for his father go? Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants), working with a script by someone else this time (Bob Nelson), shows us how far in this father-son road trip film—all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, some 850 miles. And that on a wild goose chase bound to end in disillusionment and frustration.
The disillusionment and frustration will be that of David Grant’s alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern), who has come to believe the letter from the magazine subscription service stating that he might be a winner of one million dollars. We first see the old man walking along a highway. His disheveled hair and grizzled face appears to be more that of a scarecrow than a human being’s, but there are no cornfields in this part of Montana. A policeman stops and tries to question him, but the one word responses offer little information other than his destination is Nebraska. David (Will Forte) picks him up at the police station. He tells his father that the paper is a scam, a come-on to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but the old man remains convinced that he is a prizewinner.
When they arrive home, Woody’s acid tongued wife Kate (June Squibb) is anything but understanding of her husband. Both she and David try to dislodge Woody’s belief that he has won a million dollars. Woody, however, has the paper that says so, and so it must be true, he tells them, because it is in print. The old man keeps trying to get away. His license and truck have been taken from him because of his condition, worsened by his drinking. Thus each time he sets out on foot, determined to pick up his prize money in Nebraska.
Kate is at her wit’s end, calling the old man “useless.” Older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), news anchor at a local television station, would like to place their father in a nursing home. David, just broken up with his live-in girlfriend and working as a salesman at an electrical appliance store, is tired of being called to rescue his father. But he is the only one halfway sympathetic to the old man and his pipe dream. Seeing that his father will keep on trying, David calls in sick to work and tells Woody that he will drive him. He also apparently sees this as a last chance at getting to know this father who has kept him and his brother at arm’s length all through their lives together.
What follows is not the usual road story, ending in tearful reconciling embraces, but it is a trip in which at least one of the pair will emerge richer for the experience. No, actually, more than one. The miles fly by in silence, with the sight of the wide-open spaces especially suitable for the wide screen format of today’s theaters. It is a landscape in which the sky offers as much scenery as the scrubby fields. At David’s suggestion, the pair stop off to see Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, but Woody is unimpressed, observing that it doesn’t look “finished.” There is also a time consuming interlude when they search along a railroad track for the denture plate that had fallen out of the drunken Woody’s mouth the night before when he stumbled from the bar back to the motel.
Along the way David tries to get his father to open up about the past. He raises the subject of drinking, and the sharp reply is, “You’d drink too, if you were married to your mother.” At another time the son seeks information about his parent’s courtship, “You must have been in love, at least at first.” He seems to be seeking some hint of affection from the surly old man. “It never came up,” Woody replies.
Woody injures his head so that stitches are required at a hospital. This diversion has cost them time, so, because they cannot possibly make it to Lincoln before the weekend office closure, they decide to drive down to Hawthorne, Nebraska. It is Woody and Kate’s hometown where his brothers still live with their families.
This segment is a hoot, with Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) delighted to host the pair. The several other brothers, however, are as undemonstrative as Woody. While the women are in the kitchen talking and cooking, all the men sit stolidly looking at the TV set, the only subject of conversation being what year and make of a car one of them had been driving. Added to the family reunion are Kate and Ross, hastening down to make it a full family reunion. David advises Woody not to say anything about his supposed winnings, but the old man blurts out the reason for the trip anyway. He becomes an instant celebrity, the other family members suddenly interested in his future, especially as it pertains to money. David tries to explain the true situation, but the Hawthorne contingent is certain he is denying the winnings lest he has to share it with them. As we will see, Aunt Martha’s two obnoxious, pudgy sons, still sponging off their parents, make a drastic play for the money later on.
News of Woody’s good fortune spreads around the hangdog-looking town, the citizens also very interested in what Woody will do with his winnings. He answers that he will buy a new truck and also an air compressor to replace the one that was never returned to him by the borrower 40 years ago. One of the townsfolk is more sinister, Ed (Stacy Keach), Woody’s former senior partner in the local garage, claims that Woody owes him a great deal of money. He demands payment, or else there will be a legal battle.
Thus the past hangs heavy over the characters in this film. Woody’s life has not added up to much, nor have those of the rest of the family and neighbors. Hawthorne itself, with it’s rundown stores, some of them vacant, has more of a past than a future, most of its inhabitants being old people left behind by their children needing to go elsewhere for work. During their stay in Hawthorne David learns far more about his father from some of the townspeople than he had ever learned from his parents. The charming elderly editor of the weekly newspaper Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) reveals that she had been Woody’s girlfriend.
Whether Woody’s withdrawal and mental confusion are due to his lifelong alcoholism or to approaching dementia we do not know. His singular determination to go to Nebraska bares a faint resemblance to the old man in The Straight Story, who set out on a John Deere riding mower to drive the over 200 miles to reunite with an estranged brother (Woody’s motives, of course, are not as pure). Or maybe, we should compare him to the old man in one of director Payne’s own films, Warren Schmidt in About Schmidt, which is about a man retiring from the insurance industry and needing to find a new reason for living beyond the shallow relationship with his wife. Woody, so devoid of an internal life, seems to have no religious faith, and so his only solace comes from the undeserved love of his youngest son. There is grace in this love that will put up with such a negative father and go the distance—some 850 miles—for his sake.
As the end credits rolled, the thought arose that I had witnessed a prodigal son story in reverse: as in Luke’s gospel, this is the story of “a man who had two sons.” But it is the younger son who is the person of love and mercy, and it is the father who is the prodigal. Woody through his drinking has runaway to “a far country,” one not of geography, but of the inner self. David even manages to bring about the best possible result from Woody’s finally learning and accepting the truth in the magazine office–that he has been entertaining a pipe dream. Besides the prize of a cap emblazoned with “Prize Winner,” David gives Woody something else that he has been wanting—actually two something elses, given by a son who, whether a person of faith or not, embodies much of the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. It is one of the rare heart-warming moments in this appropriately black and white film.
I should mention also one other scene of grace. It takes place in the second hospital to which Woody is taken. Kate, joining David at Woody’s bedside, gently brushes back the old man’s hair, tenderly kisses him, and says something like “Crazy old man.” Listen carefully when you watch this scene. What is the tone of her voice this time? As abrasive as before, or has something that has long been submerged by putting up with Woody’s drinking bouts, finally arisen?
Supported by some spare but lovely music by Mark Orton, this slow moving film, tinged with satiric humor, will stay with you for a long time. June Squibb will make you laugh by her unfettered tongue demeaning not only her husband, but their dead relatives as well. She is no doubt a scene stealer, but it will be Bruce Dern’s career-capping performance that will no doubt be included in “Best Actor” buzz in the weeks leading up to the next Oscars presentation.
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the January issue of Visual Parables, which will be available early in January. If you are not a subscriber, go to The Store to find out how you can become one. A subscription gives you access to several years of journals that contain many program and preaching ideas for the church seasons.