cinephile’s plundering often includes a quick trip down some more bizarre
terrain. And if there’s one film that fulfills an oddity quotient, it’s usually
David Lynch’s Eraserhead that fits
the bill. With production spanning most of the 70s and receiving its share of
acclaim and notoriety at the time, it fulfilled a certain niche in that was
equal parts dark humor and morose anxiety. The story behind the picture has
been expressed at length: David Lynch, on the verge of becoming a father, wrote
and directed Eraserhead as a form of
self-therapy. A work of nightmarish intensity, it’s a film of somber tone that
is cut by an intrinsic human quality. In all of its bizarre circumstances that
befit a nightmare, the anxieties felt are purely human. Now whether or not the
story of Lynch pouring out his anxious heart in the wake of approaching
fatherhood is true could hardly matter - it’s now an integral part in
deciphering some meaning out of the oblique netherworld that is Eraserhead.
I bring up Eraserhead as a counterpoint to what Alexander Payne’s Nebraska does. I’m not the first to make the comparison, as Slant Magazine’s Poster Lab feature touched upon the Eraserhead connection in the visual realization of Nebraska’s poster. But both Payne and Lynch’s film have an intrinsic concern regarding the nature of fatherhood and familial bonds, particularly as it pertains to a patriarch’s sanity. While Lynch is concerned with the impending start of fatherhood, Payne’s concerns rest in its end.
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is never seen opening the letter containing information that he is a millionaire. No, we first see him shuffling along a highway interchange headed toward Lincoln, Nebraska - the place where he must redeem his prize. Without the ability to drive and his wife Kate (June Squibb) scoffing at his senility, Woody takes it upon himself to hoof it. Woody’s sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) aren’t too keen on their father’s dementia either. David, recently separated and working at an electronics store in Montana, takes a few days off work to help his dad, eventually accepting the trek to Nebraska.
Part road movie part eclectic family drama, Nebraska often saddles a bizarre threshold of character quirk that threatens the integrity of the picture. It’s not wholly uncommon for Payne to do this - after all, his debut was the abortion comedy Citizen Ruth. But Payne sets an interesting precedent with Nebraska in his use of black and white. It creates an unsettling atmosphere in that everything feels shrouded in a sense of unknowing. With a central character suffering from dementia and the increasing peculiarity of its circumstances, an uneasy tone prevails above all.
But this is all coupled by what is essentially the best script Payne has serviced in his career. Bob Nelson’s understanding of familial dynamic is right on point, with his study of a small town’s response to one of their own achieving a measure of financial liberation striking a Dickensian chord. As characters begin to stake their claim to whatever perceived fortune Woody has won, Nelson is very careful to keep the thematic key point of a man anxious of the well-being of his sons after his death recurrent throughout. It’s what makes so much of Nebraska so impossibly human. The bits of sentiment are obvious in the same ways that define a Preston Sturges or Frank Capra film, but it’s Payne’s ability to expose the quirk of his characters that makes the whole effort something wholly his own.
Nebraska marks a work in Payne’s career that broaches most close to existential. The road trip element functions as a catalyst towards a descent into some heavy musings on the forces that define contemporary American culture. From vast consumption to a need for monetary liberation, the journey to Lincoln is as reflective of a dystopia as anything seen in Lynch’s Eraserhead. But whereas Lynch maintained the oddity, the overarching sense of dreariness and insanity, Payne affords his audience a measure of sympathy. If Eraserhead proved that fatherhood was an insurmountable hurdle, Nebraska clears the obstacle, albeit with a few bumps along the way.